(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Xenophobic attacks spreading

Displaced camped at Primrose police station.
Taurai Maduna/IRIN

Xenophobic violence has spread to Cape Town, while poverty stricken foreign nationals in six of South Africa's nine provinces seek ways of returning to their country of origin after attacks.

At least 42 people have been killed, 23 of whom were Mozambican nationals, according to Mozambique's deputy interior minister, Jose Mandra. More than 17,000 people have been displaced and more than 400 suspects arrested.

Violent attacks against foreign nationals began nearly two weeks ago in Alexandra township, in northern Johannesburg, and quickly spread to many other areas in Gauteng, South Africa's richest province.

Mozambique's foreign affairs Minister, Oldemiro Baloi, said on the national television channel, Televisao de Mozambique, that the National Operative Emergency Centre, also known by its acronym, CENOE, was being used to manage an expected influx of between 12,000 and 15,000 Mozambicans driven out by the violence in neighbouring South Africa.

Mozambique has provided buses for its nationals wanting to leave South Africa, while Malawi's foreign affairs principal secretary, Ben Mbewe, said in a statement from Blantyre, Malawi's second city, on 23 May: "More than 850 Malawians have been affected by the current violence. All Malawians willing to return home will be evacuated."

Zimbabwe has announced similar plans, although many of its citizens fled to South Africa because of food shortages, post-election violence and an inflation rate unofficially estimated at 1 million percent.

It is thought that since 2000 between one and three million Zimbabweans have fled to neighbouring South Africa, and form the majority of a foreign national community estimated at between one and 10 million people, most of whom are undocumented migrants.

A meeting gone wrong

According to local media, at about 9 p.m. on 22 May, after a meeting by residents of Cape Town's Du Noon informal settlement, several shacks were destroyed, shops owned by foreigners were looted and one person was killed after a mob attacked foreign nationals with stones and bottles. About 500 foreigners sought refuge at the nearby Milnerton police station.

The Du Noon meeting was called in a bid to try and stop xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals.

Outbreaks of xenophobic violence are not a new phenomenon in Cape Town. In 2006, over a period of three months, 29 of the city's population of 4,000 Somalis were killed in xenophobic attacks, according to a spokesperson for the Somali refugee community. The police dispute the figure and claim only 10 Somalis were killed, and that this was a result of crime and not xenophobia.

On the website of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency's representative in South Africa, Sanda Kimbimbi, said the "UNHCR is deeply concerned about the widespread xenophobic attacks targeting foreigners in Gauteng Province in South Africa. Those affected include refugees and asylum seekers who fled to South Africa seeking protection from persecution in their own countries."

''We are very much concerned and apologise for all the incoveniences that  the (xenophobic) incidents have caused''

South Africa's Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, reportedly told delegates at a bilateral conference in the Nigerian capital, Abuja: "We are very much concerned and apologise for all the inconveniences that the (xenophobic) incidents have caused."

The South African government, which has deployed troops in support of the police, is blaming a hidden hand in the spate of xenophobic attacks.

Political analysts attribute the xenophobic violence to a range of factors, including high unemployment, porous borders, one of the world's highest crime rates, poverty, police and government corruption, ineffective service delivery and an inept foreign policy in regard to resolving Zimbabwe's political impasse.


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