Calm after S. Africa xenophobic attacks; but tension high after mixed messages from country's leaders - what they said


The recent attacks are the worst anti-foreigner violence since 2008, when about 60 people were killed and 50,000 forced from their homes.

POLICE reinforcements were Wednesday patrolling the centre of Durban and surrounding townships to counter xenophobic violence in South Africa’s third-largest city.

However some foreign-owned shops in financial hub Johannesburg were reported to have closed on Wednesday fearing fresh attacks.

The death toll from the Durban attacks stands at five, with 44 arrests “and counting,” police spokesman Jay Naicker said by e-mail Wednesday. No violence was reported overnight, he said, though there were reports of looting in Verulam to the city’s north.

A group of foreign nationals stoned cars, people and police Tuesday in central Durban, Naicker said, adding that it wasn’t clear what provoked the attack.

“Twelve people were arrested for public violence, possession of dangerous weapons and house breaking,” Naicker said. “The police are still monitoring the areas and the situation is under control.”

An anti-xenophobia march was planned for Wednesday.

The recent attacks, which in January also affected Johannesburg, were the worst anti-foreigner violence since 2008, when about 60 people were killed and 50,000 forced from their homes.

While the government has sought to blame 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.

The country’s leaders have also been accused of stoking the violence through rhetoric, while official condemnation of the violence came too late.

On Wednesday, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress described the attacks as shameful, barbaric and unpardonable.

“The very real challenges faced by the South African people of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment cannot be blamed on people of foreign nationality,” party spokesman Zizi Kodwa said in a party newsletter.

 “Immigrants are not the enemy. The law enforcement agencies must act without any fear or favour to halt this state of affairs and bring all transgressors to book.”

Spoke out
The ANC’s comments came days after president Jacob Zuma finally spoke out against the attacks on Friday, despite the violence having first broken out in January.

Zuma said ““no amount of economic hardship and discontent will ever justify attacking foreign nationals” and that the government was “deeply concerned” about the violence.

But the silence has given other leaders space to stoke anti-foreigner sentiment.

Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini had suggested that immigrants should “pack their bags and leave” the country, comments many identified as having played a part in triggering the latest violence.

He later rejected the comment as distortion, and issued a statement on Friday where he said the attacks were “taking our continent backwards”.

“A mere suggestion that people who were looting were doing that under the king’s instruction is disingenuous,” said the king, who commands respect in the Durban region that is mostly inhabited by Zulus.

But president Zuma’s son Edward on Tuesday further muddied the waters, in what he claimed were his personal views.

‘Time bomb’
The attacks were evidence that the country was sitting on a ticking time bomb, he said, and called for those in the country illegally to either leave or present themselves for documentation.

“We accept foreign nationals that are in the country legally and contributing to the South African economy with their skills. But, we do not accept foreign nationals that shoot our mothers and sisters.”

“I am not going to stop telling the truth. The government must stop running away from addressing this issue…” he said.

The lack of documentation and the country’s porous borders has been blamed for rising crime.

Zuma said his statements were directed at all foreigners, not just Africans “They are also contributing to the problem… South Africans need to stop being apologetic, we appreciate what they did for us in the past but they should not take advantage.”

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has said the solution to xenophobia is setting up refugee camps.

South African ministers have also tied themselves up in knots in definitions. 

Police minster Nkosinathi Nhleko branded the violence as African “self-hate” and as complex.

“You are essentially dealing with an ideological problem that has to be tackled on all sorts of fronts and in this case you require a collaborative effort right across our society to fight off these kind of attitudes, and from within our society,” he said.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula promised action. “As South Africans we should refuse to be part of the attacks on innocents just because they are foreigners,” she said.

“We are equally determined to take action against all foreign nationals who commit crimes in our country. Each and every person working and living in the country must obey the law of the country.”

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