Themba Hadebe/AP
Local residents run away from tear gas fired by police to disperse anti-immigrant protesters in Actonville, east Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday, April 16, 2015.

Anti-immigrant violence spreads to South Africa's largest city

African governments have criticized the official response to days of unrest targeting foreigners and foreign-owned businesses in South African, where some blame migrants for high unemployment. 

Residents in South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg, attacked foreign-owned shops Thursday night in the latest round of anti-immigrant violence, a national problem that has stunned other African nations. 

Twelve were arrested for the attacks, the BBC reports, and dozen of foreigners sought refuge at a police station in an eastern Johannesburg suburb. Police fired rubber bullets to disperse machete-carrying crowds, CNN reports.  

From Durban to Johannesburg, violent attacks against African immigrants have been spreading across the rainbow nation with at least five people dead. Mostly aimed at Somali, Ethiopian, and Pakistani shop-owners, as well as Zimbabweans, Malawians, and Mozambicans, the violence has forced thousands to abandon their businesses and homes.

South African President Jacob Zuma denounced the attacks Thursday evening in a televised speech to parliament and called for calm. "No amount of frustration or anger can ever justify the attacks on foreign nationals and the looting of their shops,” he said.

This is the second time this year South Africa has seen a surge in xenophobic violence, a pattern stretching back over the past decade. With unemployment at 24 percent, South Africans blame foreigners, especially other African immigrants, for taking their jobs. According to the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, South Africa currently houses more than 300,000 asylum seekers.

This month’s unrest began after Goodwill Zwelethini, king of the Zulu, South Africa’s largest tribe, called for immigrants in March to “take their bags and go where they come from.” And Edward Zuma, the president’s son, said he supported the king’s sentiments.

Attacks soon erupted against foreign-owned shops in Durban, the capital of Kawzulu-Natal. The UNHCR estimates about 5,000 people have fled their homes and are sheltering in mosques, churches and public spaces across the city. The Associated Press reports that about 2,000 people have fled their homes in Johannesburg.

In response to the attacks, thousands of South Africans gathered in Durban for a peace march Thursday. Nearby, hundreds of locals jeered at the participants.

Several African nations, including Malawi and Kenya, have offered to evacuate their own nationals living and working in South Africa. Sasol, Africa’s biggest oil and petrochemicals company, is also evacuating 340 South African employees from its Mozambique operations because of concerns about the possibility of retribution attacks.

Across Africa, governments are condemning South African xenophobia and and its government’s hesitant response to the violence, M&G Africa reports:

“If this was happening here in Zimbabwe, the calls for immediate action would be like a cacophony,” Information Minister Jonathan Moyo said in a phone interview from Harare on Thursday. 

South Africa has to act “to save the lives and livelihoods of their fellow African brothers and sisters from Zimbabwe and elsewhere on the continent. They must act immediately against any form of racism or xenophobia.”

Malawi has hired buses to repatriate its citizens caught up in the violence, Information Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa said.

“I would have wished the government of South Africa would have done more,” he said by phone from Blantyre, the capital, on Thursday. 

“We are concerned, we are disappointed. We want to take our people back home until the situation normalizes.” 

China made a formal complaint with South Africa’s government about attacks directed against its nationals, Xinhua news agency reported on Thursday, citing Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

Minister of International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane plans to meet Friday with diplomats from several African countries to discuss the government's efforts to protect immigrants, her office said in a statement. 

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