South African police say they arrested 32 people on Friday for looting shops owned by foreign nationals. The arrests came during a spate of rioting that has seen a total of 153 people arrested amid fears of rising xenophobia in the country. Police said that Friday’s arrests were for public violence and possession of stolen property in Johannesburg's Soweto township, according to the Associated Press.
The looting began last week in the townships west and north of the city after a foreign national shot a 14-year-old boy who was allegedly attempting to commit a robbery. "It is alleged that the members of the community staged a revenge and started looting foreign national shops in the area. The owners of shops fired several shots towards the community to defend themselves," the South African police said in a statement reported by Al Jazeera. At least two people died during the unrest that followed.
Though authorities have steered clear of framing the attacks on foreign nationals as hate crimes, local residents in the areas have been targeting Somali, Ethiopian and Pakistani-owned shops, prompting fears of a surge in xenophobia in the country. Animosity between South African citizens and foreign merchants has flared frequently in the past, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cited a youth unemployment rate of over 50 percent as a possible contributing factor.
In 2008, more than 60 people were killed in South Africa following a series of attacks on foreign-owned businesses and migrants from countries like Malawi and Mozambique. International outrage was also sparked by the 2013 killing of a 25-year-old Somali man after a video of him being dragged through the streets of Port Elizabeth was widely shared on social media, Al Jazeera reported.
The South African government has maintained that such violence against foreigners was a result of criminality rather than xenophobia, a view shared by some South African citizens in interviews with Al Jazeera. "There has been tension for a long time now - many locals don't trust the foreign business owners and the same for them towards us,” one Soweto resident told Al Jazeera. "The looters are not just being malicious; they are frustrated and hopeless. They have no confidence in government."
A survey conducted last year found that levels of xenophobia and intolerance of foreigners were increasing in South Africa’s Gauteng province, where Johannesburg is located. According to the survey, which was conducted by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, 35 percent of respondents agree that all foreigners should be sent home. A different 2012 study found that Somali-run businesses in the country suffered disproportionate levels of crime, including attacks by competing South African business owners.