Emmerson Ziso fled hunger and repression in neighboring Zimbabwe, but now he wants to go back.
Even his violent, chaotic homeland seems a haven compared with Johannesburg, where weekend attacks on foreigners left 12 dead.
“Most of the Zimbabweans want to leave. It is better at home than here,” said the former teacher, who was chased out of his home by a mob early Sunday.
“It’s spreading like wildfire and the police and the army can’t control it,” Ziso said as he tried to help register about 500 people who sought refuge at the police station in Johannesburg’s Cleveland area.
It was a scene repeated in other poor suburbs around the city.
Angry residents accused foreigners — many of them Zimbabweans who had fled their own country’s economic collapse — of taking scarce jobs and housing.
South African President Thabo Mbeki said on Sunday that he would set up a panel of experts to investigate. African National Congress President Jacob Zuma, who is likely to succeed Mbeki next year, condemned the attacks.
“We cannot allow South Africa to be famous for xenophobia,” Zuma told a conference in Pretoria.
The weekend attacks come as the government tries to change South Africa’s violent image ahead of the 2010 World Cup. South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world, recording an average of 50 murders each day.
Many in the ANC government took refuge in neighboring countries during apartheid and are deeply embarrassed by the current violence, which has targeted immigrants who came to South Africa from other nations in the region.
Police spokesman Govindsamy Mariemuthoo said 12 people were killed. He said 200 people had been arrested on charges from rape to robbery and public violence.
The Red Cross said at least 3,000 people were left destitute.
Police said the worst violence erupted after midnight on Saturday in Cleveland and other run-down inner city areas that are home to many immigrants. Two of the victims were burned and three others beaten to death. More than 50 were taken to hospitals with gunshot and stab wounds.
Photographs supplied by local newspapers captured horrific images of a man who was set on fire after a tire soaked in gasoline was put around his neck. There was no immediate word on his condition.
One of the demonstrators in Cleveland, Michael Khondwane, said foreigners were to blame for South Africa’s drug and crime scourge. He said the violence would send them “the message that they must go.”
Johannesburg is South Africa’s economic hub and home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Many of them are illegal, but many have also been here for more than a decade and possess South African identity documents.
There has been sporadic anti-foreigner violence for months, mainly aimed at stores run by Somalis accused of undercutting local storeowners.
Eric Goemaere, the head of Medecins Sans Frontieres in South Africa, said his staff was helping to treat people with bullet wounds and back injuries from being thrown out of windows. He called on the South African government to declare Zimbabweans as refugees and give them proper protection.
“It’s a crisis,” he said.
There are believed to be up to 3 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa who have fled the economic and political turmoil in their homeland.
Massive inflation, food and fuel shortages have sent increasing numbers of Zimbabweans to South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia in search of business and basic commodities.