South Africa Struggles to Halt Wave of Attacks on Foreigners

South Africa’s government is struggling to contain a flare up of attacks against foreigners in the port city of Durban that’s left at least five people dead and forced more than 1,000 immigrants to flee their homes.

Police battled with groups of foreigners on the streets of Durban’s city center on Tuesday as they burned tires and threw stones in protest after facing attacks from a mob, police spokesman Jay Naicker said by phone. Water cannons and rubber bullets were used to disperse various groups of locals and immigrants, the municipality said in a statement.

“It is completely unacceptable for South Africans to treat foreign nationals in such a diabolical and nefarious manner,” the municipality said. “The city will not tolerate any form of violence instigated by a few individuals.”

The wave of attacks in Durban since last week were sparked by locals who accused a supermarket of firing workers and hiring foreigners to replace them, according to the police. A 14-year-old boy was allegedly shot and killed during looting of immigrants’ shops on Monday night, bringing the death toll from the violence to at least five, according to the municipality. About 48 suspects have been arrested since April 11.

South Africa is in the midst of the worst anti-foreigner violence since 2008, when about 60 people were killed and 50,000 displaced from their homes. Attacks against mainly Somali, Ethiopian and Pakistani immigrants in townships around Johannesburg flared up in January after a Somali shop owner shot and killed a 14-year-old boy during an alleged burglary.

Displacement Camps

Authorities pledged on Tuesday to crack down on the violence by deploying additional security personnel to the area.

“Any lawlessness will not be tolerated,” Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told reporters in Cape Town.

Three camps set up near Durban to accommodate immigrants who have fled their homes are housing between 1,272 and 1,472 people, Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko told reporters.

While the government blames criminals rather than xenophobia for much of the violence, the presence of thousands of immigrants in South African townships has stoked resentment among some locals who see them as competitors for jobs and housing.

“We cannot ignore the fact that it’s stemming from South Africans saying that they don’t want foreign nationals in the country, so there’s an element of xenophobia,” Nomagugu Mlawe, an attorney at Lawyers for Human Rights in Durban, said by phone. “The communities and societies are preying on the most vulnerable and taking out the frustrations on that vulnerable group of people.”

Zulu King

Comments by some government ministers and public officials criticizing the influx of foreign-owned shops may also be inflaming the situation, according to human rights groups.

On March 23, the Durban-based Mercury newspaper cited Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini as saying foreigners were depriving South Africans of economic opportunities and should return home. The king’s office said his speech was misinterpreted.

“The vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers on arrival in the country present themselves to the authorities and are given documents that allow them to stay legally,” Clementine Nkweta-Salami, southern Africa representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement on Tuesday. “To lump them in the category of illegal migrants or unlawful residents is not only incorrect but also serves to stigmatize them.”