(Bloomberg) --

At the launch in South Africa of one of the world’s largest vaccine plants -- funded by a U.S. billionaire and intended to supply the continent -- President Cyril Ramaphosa was forced to parry questions about whether his country is xenophobic.

South Africans are a welcoming people, he said on Wednesday.

That’s not evident to the millions of migrants that call the country their home.  

On the same day, Julius Malema, the leader of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters party, was forcing restaurant owners near Johannesburg to turn over their staff records and instructing them to hire more South Africans and fewer foreigners. 

On Sunday, an anti-immigrant group known as Operation Dudula is holding a rally in Soweto to discuss illegal migration. The government is meanwhile pushing ahead with a plan to send home almost 200,000 Zimbabweans who have had a special permit to stay in the country since 2009. 

Africa’s most-industrialized nation has a difficult relationship with migrants from elsewhere in Africa who are drawn to its relative wealth. In 2008, about 60 people died and 50,000 were displaced in a wave of xenophobic violence with foreigners blamed for everything from unemployment to poor government services. 

There were similar riots in 2015 and again in 2019, when Ramaphosa was forced to apologize to other African nations who were appalled by the treatment of their nationals.

South Africa is grappling with a 35% unemployment rate -- the highest on a global list of 82 nations monitored by Bloomberg -- and its economy is stuck in its longest downward cycle since World War II. The country of about 60 million people is home to almost 3 million migrants, according to government and United Nations data. 


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