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WEF host South Africa and social inequality

September 5, 2019

At the start of the World Economic Forum on Africa (WEF) in South Africa, the host country tries to show its best side. Instead, violence is escalating in several cities. Manuela Kasper-Claridge reports from Cape Town.

Südafrika Kapstadt World Economic Forum
Image: Reutes/S. Hisham

From her house Nokuthula Ndlovu could see the flames. She lives in Johannesburg and has watched the violent clashes from a safe distance. Hundreds of people plundered shops and set them on fire. There has been excessive violence against Nigerians and people from Zimbabwe and Mali. During the riots, Ndlovu housed some employees and a family in her home, because they no longer felt safe in their own homes.

The young entrepreneur is visibly shaken when she talks to DW. "My family is a mix of a blended African family, not necessarily a South African family and I mean from home I could see the flames in Johannesburg so I was really, really impacted. It's not good to just talk about it because it is not going to change the status quo. We should collaborate with governments and Africa as a continent to fight this," she says.

The scene of a looted shop where the body of a burned person was found is seen in Alexandra township, Johannesburg
South African police said they found two charred bodies in a shop in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, bringing the death toll from xenophobic attacks to seven on ThursdayImage: AFP/M. Spatari

Social inequality is a powder keg 

The violence in Johannesburg and other South African cities has put the issue of social inequality back in the headlines. Officially, unemployment in the country stands at just under 30%. But it is much higher among young black South Africans, with experts suggesting numbers as high as 80-90% in this group.

Many try to do undeclared work and somehow manage. But when workers from Zimbabwe, Mali or Nigeria offer their labor for even less, they feel the brunt of South African anger. It's a fight between poor people and even poorer ones.

Matthias Boddenberg, managing director of the South African-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has lived in the country for 19 years. He shrugs his shoulders. "The inequality is simply too great … Just look at the street," he says and points down from the balcony of the fourth floor. "There are so many poor people who live there and have almost nothing."

The number of unemployed is simply too high and "that is not justifiable," he says, adding "if every third person is unemployed, then unemployment cannot be reduced without a functioning and growing economy."

Stagnation and everyday violence 

Economic development is stagnating and there is little hope that this will change. Last year's economic growth was 0.5% and South Africa remains far below its potential many experts think.

In reality the country is rich in mineral resources, has a well-functioning agricultural sector and exports many things. Goods worth around €9 billion ($9.9 billion) were shipped to Germany alone. But what is the point of successful trade if only a few people profit from it?

On the Cape Town waterfront, luxury shops shine with the latest products. Porsche is there, so is Ferrari, Mercedes, Audi and Bulthaup, a manufacturer of high-end kitchens and accessories. In front of them South African musicians play drums and hope for donations from tourists. An elderly woman excitedly tells a policeman that her handbag has just been stolen.

Demonstrators hold up a placard saying "Stop killing us" as they gather outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre during a protest against gender based violence on September 4, 2019.
Female demonstrators have gathered outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre during a protest against gender based violence Image: Reuters/S. Hisham

Yet just a few kilometers away, the city's hypermodern congress center glistens in the sunlight. All access roads are closed off. The World Economic Forum on Africa, which takes place here on September 4-6, shouldn't be disturbed by any of the noise or violence. The police stand guard and are heavily armed. Despite all this a small group of women has made it to the front doors of the meeting hall. They sing and hold up painted posters: "We don't feel safe." These women will not turn a blind eye to the daily violence in their country.

A difficult time ahead 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa didn't see any of this Wednesday evening when he arrived at the Cape Town conference center in his armored limousine for background talks. Still these are difficult times for him. The violence against foreigners in Southern African countries dominates the news. Hardly anyone is talking about the opportunities South Africa offers.

Picture of South African Finance Minister Tito Mboweni
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was expected to stay for the opening ceremony of the WEF on Africa. But at the last minute Finance Minister Tito Mboweni (picture) stepped in to read his speechImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Bosch

Yet so far businesses don't seem too worried. Miguel Azevedo, head of investment banking for the Middle East and Africa at Citigroup, doesn't see any big stir. "Unfortunately this is nothing new for South Africa. Companies are somehow used to it," he tells DW. "If it gets worse it will be a different story of course." But others fear that headlines like "Foreigners Attacked" will keep tourists and their much needed cash away.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni stepped in for President Ramaphosa during the opening ceremony. In the prepared remarks he lauded Industry 4.0 and the progress the African continent could make in digitization. The finance minister concluded the president's speech with his own words: "We welcome our guests. We are all Africans." The hall where the presidents of Uganda and the Seychelles also sat roared with applause.

Meanwhile, South African women are protesting in front of parliament. They want to draw attention to violence against women. The demonstration is growing as more and more people join. After a young woman was raped and murdered in Cape Town, anger at the government and the police is at a high. "All of us have had enough of this, we are now going to take action to protect the women of our country," said the president, trying to reassure the women. But many remain skeptical. Such talk alone will not be enough to give all South Africans and their guests a sense of security again.

WEF overshadowed by xenophobic attacks