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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – South African soldiers will be deployed to tackle gangs hunting down and killing foreigners, officials said Tuesday, April 21, after at least seven people died in a wave of anti-immigrant violence.
Police in the economic capital Johannesburg and in the port city of Durban have struggled to contain mobs that have targeted migrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and other African countries over the last 3 weeks.
The government had vowed to crack down on the unrest, but the decision to put soldiers on the streets came after two nights of relative quiet in both cities.
“We come in as the last resort – the army will serve as a deterrent,” Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told reporters, declining to give details on how many troops would be involved.
“There are people who will be critical, but those who are vulnerable will appreciate this decision,” she said.
“Now we deploying because there is an emergency.”
The spate of attacks has revived memories of xenophobic bloodshed in 2008, when 62 people were killed in Johannesburg’s townships, rattling South Africa’s post-apartheid image as a “rainbow nation” of different ethnic and cultural groups living in harmony.
The South African army was deployed to restore order in the 2008 unrest, and has also been used against violent strikers in 2012 and 2014.
Mapisa-Nqakula said troops were being sent to volatile areas in Johannesburg, and also to KwaZulu Natal province, of which Durban is the capital.
In Johannesburg, the military presence will focus on the township of Alexandra, a poor neighborhood recently roiled by xenophobic clashes, including a Mozambican man stabbed to death in broad daylight on Saturday.
Graphic photographs of the killing were published by many South African and international newspapers and websites.
‘Not too late’
“I think it has shaken everybody,” Mapisa-Nqakula said referring to the stabbing.
“South Africans now know… even those who probably did not take it seriously know that we need to stand up.
“This is not too late, this is just the right time.”
Alexandra, where Nelson Mandela lived as a young man, is one of the most troubled parts of Johannesburg and is located next to the upmarket business district of Sandton.
Immigrants are often the focus of resentment among poor South Africans, who face a chronic jobs shortage with the youth unemployment rate well over 50 percent.
Regional relations have been strained by the unrest, with Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique organizing for some worried citizens to return home.
Nearly 400 Malawians arrived overnight in the city of Blantyre in the south of the country, where they were met by government ministers and officials.
Holding her one-year-old daughter in her arms, Agnes Salanje said she “faced death” from marauding attackers.
“We could have been killed as these South Africans hunted for foreigners, going from door to door,” Salanje, who was a domestic worker in Durban, told Agence France-Presse.
Salanje, who was paid $200 a month, said she escaped the attackers after being “tipped off by a good neighbor and we ran to a mosque to seek shelter.”
“I will not go back. It is better to be poor than be hunted like dogs because you are a foreigner,” she said after a three-day bus journey from Durban.
“I lost everything. I only managed to grab a few clothes for myself and my baby.”
Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini on Monday denied he had triggered the outbreak of xenophobic hatred in a speech last month when he blamed immigrants for rising crime and said they must leave South Africa.
The king told a rally of several thousand Zulus that the media had misrepresented his speech, which was widely seen as inciting the attacks.
President Jacob Zuma has moved to counter accusations that he was slow to react, telling parliament last week that attacks were “shocking and unacceptable.”
“No amount of frustration or anger can ever justify the attacks on foreign nationals and the looting of their shops,” he said. – Sibongile Khumalo / Rappler.com