April 17, 2015 / 7:44 AM / 3 years ago

South Africa seeks diplomatic support to defeat anti-immigrant unrest

Locals run after trying to rob a foreign motorist in Johannesburg, April 17, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

PRETORIA (Reuters) - South Africa sought diplomatic support from countries across the continent on Friday to defeat the “demon” of anti-immigrant violence in which at least four people have been killed over the past fortnight.

Foreign nationals have complained that the South African police are failing to protect them, raising the prospect of a row between Pretoria and its neighbors, as well as stirring hostility to South Africans working abroad.

The unrest, which began in the port town of Durban, has spread to Johannesburg where police fired rubber bullets and a stun grenade on Friday to end a stand-off between South Africans and an immigrant vigilante group armed with machetes.

“We believe that working together we can defeat this demon,” South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters after meeting African diplomats in Pretoria. “We all have to nip this in the bud.”

However, the Malawian government has hired buses to repatriate 500 of its nationals, Information Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa said on Friday. He urged South Africa to provide greater protection for immigrants, echoing demands from China and the African Union.

Kenya and some other African governments have also offered to evacuate any of their citizens who feel threatened, while local people in neighboring Mozambique temporarily blocked a road leading to the South African frontier on Friday in protest.

Chadian Ambassador Mahamoud Adam Bachir told Reuters the Pretoria meeting had helped to alleviate some safety concerns. “It went better than expected. We were assured of the security of our nationals,” he said.

UNEMPLOYMENT BLAMED

South Africa, with a population of about 50 million, is home to an estimated 5 million immigrants, from countries including Somalia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, and from further afield, including China and Pakistan. Many own shops or sell wares as informal hawkers on street corners or in markets.

Periodic outbreaks of anti-immigrant violence have been blamed on high unemployment, officially around 25 percent although economists say in reality much higher, widespread poverty and glaring income disparities.

Petrochemicals group Sasol said it would repatriate 340 South Africans working in Mozambique after local employees at one of its gas projects protested about their presence.

Separately, an industry source said Mozambican employees at a sub-contractor for mining group Vale had become “hostile” to South Africans working on the Moatize project in that country but there had been no violence.

The Ressano Garcia border post between South Africa and Mozambique was closed after around 200 Mozambicans barricaded a road approaching the crossing, police said. Traffic later resumed after police dispersed the protesters.

The foreign ministry of China, a major trade partner of South Africa, said on Thursday Chinese-run shops had been damaged in Johannesburg. The Chinese consulate lodged a protest with the police and asked that they ensure the safety of Chinese people.

The latest wave of unrest began after Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini was quoted by local media as saying that foreigners should leave South Africa. He has since said his comments were misinterpreted and has urged residents to be calm.

Johannesburg was the center of anti-foreigner attacks in 2008 that killed more than 60 people.

Additional reporting by Siphiwe Sibeko in Johannesburg, Manuel Mucari in Maputo and Frank Phiri in Blantyre; Writing by Joe Brock; editing by David Stamp

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