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South Africa's president calls attacks on immigrants shameful

President Mbeki says end 'attacks against Africans' and welcome them back home. But a police raid on a transit camp sends another message.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / June 18, 2008

Rubber bullets: Leftover cartridges after police raided an immigrant camp.

Scott Baldauf

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Tshwane, South Africa

More than three weeks after beginning, South Africa's xenophobic attacks continue as the nation's leaders urge communities to begin bringing African immigrants from other countries back into their communities.

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Just days after a Mozambican man was burnt alive in the township of Atteridgeville, and police raided a camp near the nation's capital, swinging clubs and firing rubber bullets and injuring dozens of the nearly 1,500 Somalis, Ethiopians, and Congolese inside, President Thabo Mbeki made a renewed appeal for the violence to stop. More than 62 have died since the violence began.

Speaking at a ceremony commemorating Youth Day on Monday, Mr. Mbeki praised the past efforts of South African youth in the liberation struggle that ended the racist system of apartheid. But, he added, "at the same time, we must admit that all of us have been humiliated and shamed by the small number of young people who took it upon themselves to lead criminal attacks against the Africans living among us."

Kgalema Motlanthe, the ruling African National Congress party's No. 2, reinforced the message at a speech in Soweto: "The current situations suggest that we are sinking into a flood."

While few predicted the anti-immigrant attacks, the warning signs have been present for years. Attacks against Somali shopkeepers alone have led to hundreds of deaths in sporadic violence since 1994, say Somali groups. The government doesn't track attacks based on national origin.

Anger about the government's inability to create jobs or to deliver electricity or drinking water to burgeoning townships has spilled over into open protests, complete with roadblocks, burning tires, and residents wielding clubs. Now, angry citizens have taken their frustrations out those who arrived in South Africa to make a little money, and succeeded.

"We're talking about the poorest of the [South African] poor, and there was no pressure valve, and so when the pressure grew, and you lit a match, the whole thing blew," says Adrian Hadland, director of democracy and governance programs at the Human Sciences Research Council. Dr. Hadland recently conducted focus groups in townships for a report for the government on the causes of and solutions for xenophobic attacks.

In the focus groups, "People describe themselves as being in a state of siege. Food is more expensive. Housing is more expensive. Jobs are harder to find. You would already be looking for a scapegoat, and then you have migrants arriving, most of them better educated, some of them with access to money," he says. The violence is "nothing new, but what is new is how the violence spread so rapidly, and nationally."

Tito Mboweni, the Reserve Bank Governor, said earlier this month that poor South Africans spend half of their income on food alone. "Food and petrol prices are the main contributors to inflation, but in recent months, more generalized price pressures have emerged as well," said Mr. Mboweni.

While government officials like President Mbeki are urging citizens to allow the migrants to return, Hadland says that few South Africans want reintegration to begin until the government meets some of their demands for better service and less corruption.