Human rights organisations in South Africa have condemned a spate of xenophobic attacks that have reportedly left four people dead and hundreds homeless.
In the latest incident on 24 March, two foreign nationals were reportedly killed when a mob burnt torched their dwellings in a township outside the capital, Pretoria. "At least a 1,000 people have also been left homeless in the latest attack - we are really concerned," said Vincent Moaga, spokesman for the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which has launched an inquiry.
The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said it had recorded at least half a dozen attacks against foreign nationals in the past few weeks, including the fatal shooting of two migrants in another township outside Pretoria on 18 March. Following the killing, thousands of people went on a rampage, assaulting foreigners in four other informal settlements, reported local newspapers.
"Most of the attacks seem to stem from social tensions within the communities," said Jack Redden, UNHCR spokesman in South Africa. "Many foreign nationals unable to afford rentals in city centres have begun to relocate to townships - and have become the focus of simmering tensions within townships over lack of service delivery."
According to the government's 'Labour Force Survey 2007', about a quarter of the nearly 17 million strong labour force remain officially unemployed in South Africa. A further 3.5 million are classified as "discouraged work-seekers" or "unemployed." Over the past few years, there have been several demonstrations, often violent, against the slow pace of delivery across the country. Intolerance towards foreigners has also been a long standing problem.
"It is a new kind of racism," commented Annah Moyo, a human rights lawyer with the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF). "It is understandable, I think, because South Africans feel threatened as many employers prefer to hire foreign nationals because they can exploit them - but violence can never be justified."
UNHCR's Redden said the UN agency had received several complaints of an allegedly inadequate response from the police. "None of the perpetrators have been arrested in any of these incidents."
The police instead made headlines last month when they arrested 500 people, most believed to be Zimbabwean migrants, at a Methodist Church in Johannesburg's inner-city. The raid sparked accusations of human rights violations; the police said they had entered the church - a known sanctuary for homeless people - after receiving complaints that some of the church's residents were allegedly involved in crime.
IRIN was unable to get comment from the police on the latest incidents outside Pretoria, but a police spokesman, Captain Thomas Mufamadi, was reported in the local media as saying it had yet to be established whether the 19 March attacks had deliberately targeted foreigners.
South Africa as the regional economic superpower has attracted migrants - both legal and illegal - from across the continent and beyond. Xenophobia was against "the values and spirit of the South African constitution", said SAHRC's Moaga. "There is a need to educate and change our people's mind-set towards foreigners - they are here because of circumstances in their countries."