SOUTH AFRICA: Violence against foreigners flares in Cape Town

Monday, May 26, 2008
Some 2,000 people fleeing violence against foreigners in Cape Town boarded a special train on Saturday to take them to Johannesburg, from where they will join their compatriots from across the country hoping to be evacuated from South Africa.

The violence flared in the townships around the southern coastal city on Thursday night, copying the pattern of attacks and looting that began in Johannesburg on 10 May. By Friday afternoon nearly 600 refugees were at the Milnerton Police Station and Killarney Race Track, suburbs northeast of the city, waiting to be moved to community halls and churches where they would spend the night.

"Last night they came to take our things. Tonight there will be killing," Pascal Ndikumana, a Burundian security guard who has lived in Cape Town for 18 months, told IRIN at the Milnerton police station.

People were begging officers to return to the townships with them to fetch their things before it was "too late." "There are a few who want to go back and we assist where we can, but most don’t want to go," said Inspector Daphne Dell. "Things are still very tense," she added.

Julien Mafuta, a travel consultant from the Republic of Congo, has lived in the racially mixed township of Phoenix, northeast of the city, for over 11 years with his two children. "We don’t know what we'll do. I feel like something major can happen here. From what I've seen, it looks like many lives could be lost."

The looting continued all day on Friday in the townships of Du Noon, Masiphumelele, Khayelitsha, Lwandle, Macassar, Mitchells Plain, Nyanga, and Ocean View. By late Friday night it had reached downtown Cape Town, South Africa’s tourism-rich second city.

Many of the displaced IRIN spoke to complained of a poor police response to the violence. "Since the weekend we all heard this was going to happen, but no measures were taken to avoid it," Mafuta said.

Several people from Du Noon said that locals and foreigners alike had been instructed by the police to attend a meeting on Thursday evening in the township, but that there was no clear reason for the gathering and people left angry. At 10pm the looting of Somali shops began.

Outbreaks of xenophobic violence are not a new phenomenon in Cape Town. In 2006, over a period of three months, 29 of the city's population of 4,000 Somalis were killed in xenophobic attacks, according to a spokesperson for the Somali refugee community. The police dispute the figure and claim only 10 Somalis were killed, and that this was a result of crime and not xenophobia.

The governments of Mozambique and Zimbabwe have begun the "voluntary repatriation" of their citizens from South Africa, in the wake of the ongoing violence that police say has claimed 42 lives, displaced more than 16,000 people and led to 400 arrests.

In a press conference on Friday, Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool, Police Commissioner Mzwandile Petros and Community Safety Minister Leonard Ramatlakane all condemned the attacks and said the army was on stand-by. However, Rasool and Petros maintained they were confident the police had the situation under control, and insisted the unrest was a result of "looting and common criminals".