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Deadly Xenophobic Durban Riots Spread to Other South African Cities

South Africa's leaders have called for international assistance to stem the rampant violence and attacks against foreign nationals.

by Kayla Ruble
Apr 17 2015, 11:00pm

Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

For more than two weeks, xenophobic riots have plagued the South African port city of Durban, with South African nationals lashing out at immigrants from southeastern countries like the Malawi and Mozambique, as well as other nations on the continent. On Thursday night and into Friday morning, the violence spread to downtown Johannesburg as rioters looted foreign-owned stores.

As anti-immigrant attackers continued to target these shops in South Africa's largest city today, police forces got involved, firing rubber bullets and arresting at least six people in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Jeppestown. The rioters, some carrying axes and hammers, also set cars on fire in the early hours of Friday.

Video from the scene shows police walking through empty but noisy, tree-lined streets, firing bullets. Reports from the BBC indicate that police were blocking mobs from attacking immigrant-owned stores.

Corlett Letlojane, the Executive Director of the Human Rights Institute of South Africa told VICE News in February that in the country of 50 million people, a weak economy and high unemployment rate of 24 percent have helped foster resentment toward the some 5 million foreigners in South Africa, especially those who own and manage small businesses and stores.

Local authorities were warned ahead of time that violence against shop owners and stores in Johannesburg could occur as early as Wednesday. Scuffles kicked off the following day.

Reports also emerged Friday of attacks simultaneously occurring in other parts of the country like in the de facto capital of Pretoria and the town of Cala in South Africa's Eastern Cape province.

The riots in Durban, which have claimed at least five lives since they began in early April, have now assuaged after a 5,000-strong crowd took to the streets Thursday in a show of unity against the anti-immigrant attacks. Despite reports of relative calm in the port city Friday, a Congolese immigrant living in Durban told VICE News he and his family remained barricaded in their home out of fear that violence would reignite.

On Thursday, President Jacob Zuma condemned the attacks and the government issued a request for diplomatic assistance from other African countries. In comments to reporters Friday, South Africa's foreign minister said all countries on the continent were collectively responsible for helping resolve the violence.

"We believe that working together we can defeat this demon," South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said after a meeting with foreign diplomats in Pretoria, Reuters reported. "We all have to nip this in the bud."

But as violence continued Friday, many immigrants said they believed authorities in South Africa, including the police, have been powerless to stem the violence.

In this climate, citizens of neighboring countries have been forced to take measures to prevent further fatalities, including in Mozambique, where an estimated 200 people on Friday put up a roadblock on a route leading to South Africa. 

Meanwhile, Malawi's information minister confirmed the country had chartered 500 buses to evacuate Malawians living in South Africa, according to Reuters. The first busloads of Malawians have already started their journey.

Other countries like Kenya have also said they will make efforts to get their nationals out of South Africa.

As various African nations work towards a solution to the violence and xenophobia that have propelled the attacks, alarmist messages have reportedly been circulating on social media and through the messaging application WhatsApp. Some of these messages perpetuate rumors that busloads of xenophobic attackers are currently heading for Durban and that trainloads of Zulus are heading towards Johannesburg.

On Saturday, Zuma cancelled a planned trip to Indonesia in order to deal with the growing unrest in his country.

"We condemn the violence in the strongest possible terms. The attacks violate all the values that South Africa embodies, especially the respect for human life, human rights, human dignity and Ubuntu," said Zuma in a statement Thursday. "We appeal for calm, an end to the violence and restraint. Criminal elements should not be allowed to take advantage of the concerns of citizens to sow mayhem and destruction."

This is not the first time xenophobic violence has engulfed South Africa. In 2008, anti-immigrant riots in Johannesburg left 62 people dead. The current string of attacks began shortly after local media reported that South Africa's powerful Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini called for foreigners to get out of South Africa last month. Zwelithini later said these comments were misinterpreted and called for an end to the assaults.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB