Opposition parties on Monday lambasted the government for its handling of refugees and xenophobic violence in parts of the country, and even called for the army to be deployed.
Mobs roaming through poverty-stricken townships around Johannesburg have killed and beaten up immigrants over the past week, with Zimbabweans and other Africans reporting purges by armed locals looking for foreigners. On the weekend, the violence also spread to the Johannesburg CBD.
Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula needs to “pull her head out of the sand” and acknowledge the causes and the extent of the violence in Gauteng, Democratic Alliance (DA) chief whip Ian Davidson said.
“The DA is deeply concerned about the extent of the humanitarian crisis that is developing across Gauteng as a result of violent attacks on foreign nationals,” he said, adding that the time had come for “targeted intervention” by the government to both halt the violence and establish refugee camps for those displaced by it.
Davidson said Mapisa-Nqakula had a “long history of denial” about the extent of illegal immigration into South Africa, mainly from Zimbabwe.
“By presiding over one of the largest human migrations of the last quarter-century, without any comprehensive plans on how to cope with the influx of millions of people into South Africa, the government is largely responsible for helping to create the necessary conditions for the development of the current crisis.”
The establishment of refugee camps would allow the government access to the expertise and resources of United Nations agencies.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said that a week after the violence began, the government had still not responded adequately.
Now President Thabo Mbeki has announced a committee to analyse the causes for this outbreak of barbarity. “But analysis is not good enough; while government is analysing the causes, their immediate task is to ensure the safety of all who reside in our country, whether local or foreign, Holomisa said.
Two immediate steps are required to restore order. Firstly, Mbeki needs to address the nation on this issue. It warrants a national broadcast.
“Whether this is xenophobia, criminal hooliganism, ethnic hatred or tribalism, what is required is for the chosen government of the people to address the nation to say that this behaviour is totally unacceptable,” said Holomisa.
Secondly, he said, the army needs to be drafted in to assist the police.
Mbeki and African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma have both strongly condemned the attacks.
‘It’s very tense’
Meanwhile, crowds of foreigners sought refuge at crowded community centres and police stations in Johannesburg on Monday as the death toll from a wave of xenophobic violence rose to 22.
The violence erupted in Alexandra township early last week when two people were killed in an attack, and police said on Monday that the number of dead had risen to 22 with more than 200 arrested.
“An update has shown 22 have been killed since the start of the violence last week and 217 have been arrested,” police spokesperson Govindsamy Mariemuthoo said, adding that some of these were “criminal elements”.
In Reiger Park, a slum area in the city’s outlying East Rand, violence again erupted early on Monday morning, with residents forced to flee as their homes were set alight, a reporter witnessed.
Alongside one shack, a man lay beaten and bloody, with burns on his legs from attempts to set him on fire.
On Sunday, an immigrant died after being covered with his own blankets and set alight. The gruesome image of the human fireball was captured on the front page of several South African papers on Monday.
The violence has displaced thousands of foreigners, who are accused by many South Africans of depriving locals of jobs and committing crime.
Crowds of mainly foreigners gathered at community centres and police stations in affected parts of the greater Johannesburg area to avoid the violence — mainly the notorious central downtown area and slum areas to the east of the city.
“Last night we had more than 2Â 000 people,” said Mxolisi Koom, a volunteer at the Germiston Civic Centre, which is near a squatter camp that was attacked in the East Rand, about 40km from central Johannesburg.
In the downtown Cleveland area, where six were reported dead in overnight violence in the early hours of Sunday morning, shops were closed and an eerie calm prevailed on Monday, police said.
“There’s nothing in the street,” local police spokesperson Cheryl Engelbrecht said. “It’s very tense. There’s no place open at all.”
At least 300 people were sheltering at the local police station, she said, where they were being cared for by the South African Red Cross and local community groups.
More than 1Â 000 foreigners were being housed at the Alexandra police station.
According to Neria Malefetse, spokesperson for the police station, the situation is becoming unbearable since space is limited. “Women and children are sleeping in the hallway and men are sleeping outside in tents. We are dependent on donations to feed the people and to get blankets against the cold.”
The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Monday accused the government of failing to take the swelling threat of xenophobia seriously.
“There has been poor leadership in this country as far as these issues are concerned,” SAHRC chief executive Tseliso Thipanyane told public radio.
Thipanyane said the sudden outburst is the result of festering anger at a lack of resources, and the large influx of immigrants, estimated at up to five million.
“There is definitely a competition for scarce resources, houses and jobs and other services. If you look at where the majority of attacks have happened, it’s largely in poor areas, where black people find themselves living.
“It is in the townships, the inner-city where conditions are quite terrible. You have poor black people fighting against poor black people from other countries.”
The bulk of the immigrants who have flooded South Africa in recent years are from Zimbabwe, with an estimated three million having fled the economic meltdown and political crisis in their homeland.
Meanwhile, the Department of Home Affairs is setting up two task teams to address the crisis of xenophobic attacks in Gauteng.
According to the department’s chief director of communications, Siobhan McCarthy, one of these task teams will immediately set up an awareness campaign to try to prevent further attacks. The team will be meeting for the first time on Tuesday.
Another high-level task team will look into long-term solutions for the problems. No information is available on when the panel will be meeting and the specific topics that will be under discussion.
“The panel is a good move to find the solutions to the core of the problem, but what is missing is addressing the social economic situation that is at the heart of the problem,” Prince Mashele, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, told the Mail & Guardian Online.
“A situation like this has been brewing since 1994. People were promised houses and basic services that they never received. It only takes one hooligan to spark violence in the core of the people’s frustration.”
Mashele said the systematic way in which the attacks spread across Johannesburg suggested that a syndicate of organised crime may be responsible. “The fact that the situation is spreading like a veld fire from one township to another in such a systematic way tells me that there is a network of people behind it.”
According to Mashele, the country is reaping the consequences of neglected political education.
“Other African countries have fought against apartheid for us,” he said. “It is very ironic that black South Africans are attacking the very same people from African countries that assisted in our liberation struggle during apartheid. The whole world must be laughing at how ridiculous we are.”