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South African Police Take Measures to Protect Foreigners

The South African government says it is taking measures to address threats of violence against foreigners. Civic groups say hundreds of people have fled the country in recent days fearing a repetition of the xenophobic violence of two years ago.

South African police have stepped up patrols in several impoverished communities after some foreign-owned shops were looted and hundreds of foreigners reported being threatened with violence if they did not leave the country.

The reports raised fears of a repetition of the xenophobic attacks two years ago in which 62 people were killed and more than 100,000 were displaced.

The South African government says such fears are based on unsubstantiated rumors.

Deputy-Minister of Police Fikile Mbalule told national radio the government believes criminals are behind the tension.

"The so-called xenophobic attack is basically characterized by high sense of criminality and we must deal with those criminal elements who are looting and doing all sorts of such things," said Mbalule.

He said police have stepped up patrols and pledged that perpetrators of any acts of violence or criminality would be brought swiftly to justice.

Some officials have accused civic groups and the media of issuing alarmist reports which they say could encourage such acts.

But the spokesperson for South Africa's Institute of Race Relations, Catherine Schulze, warned the threat is real.

"It is [enophobic violence] not inevitable at all. We are just warning that the environment that gave rise to the attacks in 2008 is quite unchanged. Poverty, unemployment and very low income rates all contribute to this enabling environment," she said.

She praised the government for deploying additional security forces in tense areas and urged it to use its leadership to change perceptions of migrants in the country.

Resentment against foreigners runs high among some impoverished South Africans who accuse them of taking jobs and low-cost housing away from them.

But general society was dismayed at the violence of two years ago. The government and people of South Africa widely condemned the attacks and donated millions of dollars to help the victims.

The government has created an inter-ministerial task force to prevent any new outbreaks by encouraging dialogue and education through churches, community policing forums and civic groups.