When South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane spoke to diplomats in Pretoria on 17 April, her address contained all the usual elements of her speeches to fellow African officials.

‘At the core of our foreign policy is the commitment we have made to ourselves and to you that we will always prioritise Africa in all our endeavours, because we are an integral part of the African continent,’ she said.

This time, these often-spoken words came against the backdrop of an apology to African ambassadors over the brutal treatment meted out to their countrymen and women these last few weeks.

Nkoana-Mashabane said the South African government expressed its ‘deep pain and regret’ about the attacks that hit the cities of Durban and Johannesburg. At least seven have died and thousands have been displaced in the violence, the worst since the attacks of 2008, in which 62 people died.

African leaders and civil society elsewhere on the continent have now started to speak out against these attacks, saying South Africa should do more to protect foreigners. Previously, African governments were largely silent on the matter. Another effect of the renewed violence is that privileged South Africans can no longer think of xenophobia as ‘a township problem’. Given the blow to the country’s image and the threat to South African tourists and businesses abroad, it’s clear that it affects everyone.

Although they are speaking out, the reaction from the continent’s leaders has been relatively cautious. According to local media, Zambian President Edgar Lungu has vowed to discuss the issue with the current Southern African Development Community and African Union (AU) Chairperson, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Having just returned from a visit to South Africa, Mugabe condemned the attacks, saying ‘our own African people on the African continent must be treated with respect’.

Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika also called on South African President Jacob Zuma to stop the violence. Several hundreds of Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians have been helped to return to their home country.

Meanwhile, various African civil society organisations are calling for boycotts against South African companies, which could prove very damaging. Among the issues raised by followers of social media groups like the ‘Boycott South Africa’ Facebook page, is a call for the upcoming AU summit, to be held in Johannesburg from 7 – 15 June 2015, to be moved to another venue. This will be the first time South Africa hosts an AU summit in more than 10 years. Preparations for the summit are going ahead, however.

Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, says the xenophobic attacks could certainly ‘make things difficult’ for AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. One of the first leaders to react publicly to the violence, Dlamini-Zuma issued a statement on 15 April and said the attacks were ‘unacceptable’. She described it as particularly regrettable in the run-up to the annual Africa Day on 25 May, which marks the founding of the Organisation of African Unity. Dlamini-Zuma is a prominent member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), with a strong support base in KwaZulu-Natal, where the attacks were taking place at the time of her statement.

Atta-Asamoah says the economic repercussions inside South Africa are relatively small and mostly limited to foreign traders being forced out of the informal sector; however, a continent-wide boycott of South African products could be very damaging. Several South African telecoms brands, retailers and banks have a very visible presence elsewhere in Africa, notably Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Shoprite, for example, has shops in 14 African countries outside of South Africa. Its biggest concentrations are in Zambia (22 shops), Namibia (19) and in Angola and Nigeria, where it has 11 shops in each country. Standard Bank operates in 20 African countries and MTN makes its largest profits in Nigeria, where it has 60 million subscribers, compared to 28 million in South Africa.

Already, South African workers had to be evacuated from a Mozambican gas plant due to fears of reprisals following the xenophobic attacks. Atta-Asamoah says the South African Department Of International Relations And Cooperation is now visibly trying to put out the fires and prevent a backlash. ‘The South African diplomatic machine has now kicked in.’ South African high commissioners and ambassadors on the continent are being quoted in local media apologising for the attacks and reassuring other Africans that they are welcome.

Sentiments, however, run deeper than just ‘tit-for-tat’ and resentment over the many brands ‘colonising’ Africans’ shopping experience. Many Africans, expressing themselves in social media and local newspapers, feel that South Africans owe a lot to the continent because of their support against apartheid, which helped the ANC to power. This makes the xenophobic attacks even more reprehensible and hurtful, they say.

Writing this week about the reaction to xenophobia in South Africa’s City Press newspaper, Zambian businessman Isaac Nkama, for example, recounts how Zambians had suffered insecurity due to its hosting of liberations movements, including the ANC, in Lusaka. ‘With the exception of President Zuma and a few others, very few leaders publicly speak about how other countries stood with South Africans’.

In his recent book on the ANC in exile in Zambia titled The Lusaka Years, Hugh MacMillan estimates there were close to 4 000 South African exiles in Zambia when the ANC was unbanned in 1990 – the biggest South African exiled population in the world.

Although non-African countries like Sweden funded much of the ANC activity, newly independent Zambia took huge risks in hosting the ANC. Macmillan quotes former ANC president Oliver Tambo as saying, ‘Every movement that has subsequently become a government in this region owes something to the unstinting hospitality of the people of Zambia.’

In the past few days, Nigerians have also emphasised the contributions made to the anti-apartheid struggle by ordinary people, who gave their hard-earned wages to help the ANC. Figures of up to US$61 billion, supposedly given by Nigeriato the anti-apartheid struggle, have been bandied about – but this has not been verified.

The lack of information about this issue shows that historians and researchers have neglected Africa’s contribution to the fall of apartheid. Certainly, South Africans could benefit from more information about what Africa did for the struggle. It will drive home the grave injustice of what some are calling South Africans’ Afrophobia.

This article is published in collaboration with ISS Africa. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Liesl Louw-Vaudran is a Consultant at ISS.

Image: A long exposure picture shows a seasonal fog illuminated by the lights of Cape Town harbour. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.