The rumour mill, a few recent xenophobic attacks and memories of countrywide attacks on foreign nationals two years ago have combined to create an exodus of people from the coastal city of Cape Town to their home countries or South Africa's rural areas.
A Somali trader was killed just over a week ago in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Cape Town, and on 6 July a Zimbabwean national, Reason Wandi, was thrown from a moving train by passengers and suffered serious injuries.
He told local media that just before the attack, "They [passengers] said, 'they must go back home to their countries, makwerekweres'." Makwerekwere is a pejorative term for foreign black Africans.
Ancelot Mbayagu, a Burundian national living in South Africa and chairman of the African Disabled Refugee Organisation, told IRIN it was difficult to quantify the number of people fleeing because they feared xenophobia in the past few days, but it could be more than 10,000. However, he cautioned that migrants were a mobile population and some might be leaving because seasonal work had finished, which would distort the figure.
During the countdown to the soccer world cup there were widespread reports of a whispering campaign against foreign nationals, warning them to leave South Africa before the end of the tournament on 11 July or face dire consequences. Foreign nationals, especially those residing in the country's marginalized communities, are often accused of "stealing" jobs and houses from locals.
In May 2008 xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread through most parts of the country, killing more than 60 people - about a third of whom were South African nationals - and displacing about 100,000 others.
Xenophobia has been a constant companion of post-apartheid South Africa and the May 2008 attacks were merely the most intense wave of it to date. The Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP) at the University of the Witwatersrand estimates there are about 1.6 to 2 million foreign-born residents in South Africa, out of a population of 48 million.
Braam Hanekom, coordinator of People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP) - a Cape Town-based NGO advocating the rights of documented and undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers - told IRIN that about five months ago they became aware of a "huge circulation of rumours and intimidation [against foreign nationals], but there is no solid evidence of planned attacks" once the soccer tournament ends on 11 July.
"So I don't think Zimbabweans woke up one morning and said to themselves, 'okay, let's run now'. This was planned a few months ago; the perception of people suddenly running out [of Cape Town] is not the complete truth."
About five times more people than was usual were on the move. "It's comparable to the December season [when many migrants go home during the Christmas holidays]," Hanekom said. "It's illogical. Normally, [at this time of year] there will be five or ten people waiting at the side of the road for lifts; now it's sixty, seventy, or a hundred."
In November 2009 at De Doorns, a farming town about 140km northeast of Cape Town, 2,500 Zimbabwean migrants sought refuge in government buildings after some of their shacks were razed in attacks by local residents.
A local councillor of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, who has since being suspended, was implicated in encouraging community members to attack foreign nationals, and blaming them for delaying service delivery to the community.
A report on 17 June on the De Doorns unrest by the Black Sash, a human rights advocacy organization, said the closure of the displacement camp for victims of the De Doorns xenophobic attack could not take place as scheduled on 31 May 2010.
"The Zimbabweans in the camp were not willing to leave until they received compensation, and despite the availability of starter packs for rebuilding shelter they were scared of moving back to the townships for fear of a backlash by South African residents. The South African residents' representatives remain committed to receiving better service delivery before the Zimbabweans will be welcomed back into the townships," the report noted.
Hanekom said to date there had been no significant service delivery in De Doorns, but the attack against foreign nationals illustrated the impunity that the perpetrators of xenophobia enjoyed.
"Xenophobia is almost not seen as a crime; in some communities it's perceived as an honourable act. We saw that in De Doorns, where there was big support [from the community] for those accused of xenophobia," he said.
Tara Polzer, a senior researcher at FMSP, told IRIN that foreign nationals were also leaving Johannesburg, the country's economic hub, but it was difficult to tell how many were leaving out of fear of xenophobia, because migrant populations were generally mobile. "For people to pack up their belongings and their families and leave is a big decision; for people to do that they have to be very afraid," she commented.
"The key trigger of violence against foreign nationals and outsiders in specific locations is localized competition for political (formal and informal) and economic power," noted a FMSP policy brief, Xenophobia - Violence against Foreign Nationals and other 'Outsiders' in Contemporary South Africa.
"Leaders and aspirant leaders often mobilize residents to attack and evict foreign nationals as a means of strengthening their personal political or economic power within the local community."
The nationwide xenophobia in May 2008 was a source of huge embarrassment to the ANC government, which relied on the hospitality of African states during its struggle against apartheid South Africa.
Polzer said the government, security services and the national disaster organizations were on high alert to prevent any repeat of May 2008. "Attacking foreigners with impunity is not going to happen this time around."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions