Immigrants leave South Africa over violence

Published on Wednesday 21st May 2008

Johannesburg (South Africa): More than 10,000 Mozambicans have fled home from South Africa to escape xenophobic attacks that have killed at least 42 people, officials in the neighbouring country said on Wednesday.

Soldiers backed police in early morning raids in Johannesburg and air force helicopters patrolled Alexandra township after President Thabo Mbeki approved army intervention to help end unrest that has threatened to destabilise Africa's largest economy.

A top African National Congress leader criticised police for reacting too slowly to 11 days of attacks on African migrants, which have driven at least 15,000 people from their homes and prompted thousands to return to their countries.

"10,047 returned home in buses provided by the government, the number is likely to increase in the next days as long as violence unfolds in South Africa," Mozambique's Deputy Immigration Director Leonardo Boby told Reuters in Maputo.

The armed mobs accuse the African immigrants of stealing jobs and fuelling crime. Several people have been burned to death and scores of shacks looted and torched. Most of the immigrants are from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Reuters report said.

The ANC's deputy leader Kgalema Motlanthe criticised the police delay in responding to the violence which erupted in Alexandra township on May 11 and spread rapidly.

"The delay encouraged people in similar environments to wage similar attacks against people who came from our sister countries on the continent," Motlanthe said at an international media industry conference in Johannesburg.

"We are confronted by one of the ugliest incidents in the post-apartheid era".

Jacob Zuma, who defeated Mbeki to take the ruling party leadership in December, said in Paris he welcomed the army's deployment.

Police, backed by soldiers, conducted early morning raids on three dormitory hostels near Johannesburg early on Thursday, the first army involvement.

Firearms and ammunition were seized and 28 men were arrested. None of them were immediately linked to the violence, police spokeswoman Sally de Beer said.

The attacks on African migrants have increased political instability at a time of power shortages and disaffection over Mbeki's pro-business policies. Soaring food and fuel prices helped push tensions to breaking point.

The country's security minister refuted claims that the violence was in response to government failures or poverty, and dismissed reports that it was orchestrated for political reasons.

"We can't justify violence ... there are weaknesses in service delivery, there are weaknesses in terms of what we do but that does not justify people then resorting to violence," Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula told reporters.

The South African currency fell sharply earlier this week on the back of the violence. The rand was firmer on Thursday at 7.6695 to the U.S. dollar.

The biggest group of immigrants come from Zimbabwe. An estimated three million have fled economic collapse at home.

Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai visited Alexandra on Thursday and met Zimbabweans sheltering at the police station there.

One refugee said he was considering going home despite the fact that in Zimbabwe he would have to face hyperinflation, shortages of food and an upsurge of political violence since disputed March 29 elections.

"I am thinking of going back to Zimbabwe, I'm too scared," said Samuel Dhliwayo, a 30-year-old Zimbabwean who worked as a painter.

South Africa has a population of about 50 million and is home to an estimated 5 million immigrants.

Its reputation as a haven for immigrants and asylum seekers is in tatters, and there are growing fears that the crisis could dent the country's lucrative tourism industry and cripple its hosting of the 2010 soccer World Cup.