South African troops were preparing yesterday to enter townships to help end xenophobic attacks that have killed 42 people, and a top official of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) criticized the handling of the crisis.
South African President Thabo Mbeki’s call for the army’s intervention was an acknowledgment of the seriousness of unrest since May 11 that has driven thousands of African migrants from their homes and threatened to destabilize Africa’s largest economy. However, it was not known yesterday when the army would be deployed.
A provincial police spokesman said the police and military would be hashing out the details yesterday but that the police would still be taking the lead in the security response to the attacks.
Finance Minister Trevor Manuel downplayed the recourse to the military, which had been seen by some as possibly eliciting parallels with incursions by the military into black townships during apartheid.
“It’s not a military solution we’re looking for,” Manuel said in a radio interview. “It’s about changing the daily lives of people,” he said, stressing the need to alleviate unemployment, officially put at 23 percent but estimated by unions at closer to 40 percent.
Meanwhile, ANC deputy leader Kgalema Motlanthe criticized the police delay in responding to the violence.
“The delay encouraged people in similar environments to wage similar attacks against people who came from our sister countries on the continent,” he said at an international media industry conference in Johannesburg.
More than 15,000 migrant workers and their families have fled to refugee camps after 11 days of attacks by mobs armed who accuse the immigrants of stealing jobs and fueling crime. Several people have been burned to death and scores of shacks looted and torched.
Motlanthe said the violence was an assault on the values of South Africa’s democratic society. He is a close ally of ANC leader Jacob Zuma, who defeated Mbeki for the party leadership last December.
“We are confronted by one of the ugliest incidents in the post-apartheid era,” he said.
Soaring food and fuel prices have helped push tensions to breaking point, prompting the intervention of the army in restive areas around Johannesburg.
Soldiers are expected to participate in joint operations with police, who have failed to prevent the attacks from spreading from Johannesburg area shantytowns to other parts of the nation, including Durban and KwaZulu-Natal.
Some migrants are not waiting for authorities to gain the upper hand.
“We must leave, It is not safe here,” a Zimbabwean woman said on Wednesday as she left the Primrose informal settlement outside Johannesburg where gangs of youths burnt and looted migrants’ shacks.
Others, especially migrants from Mozambique, are also making plans to leave. Nearly 9,000 Mozambican nationals have fled since the attacks began, South African radio reported. Mozambicans are thought to be the second-largest migrant group in after Zimbabweans.
Migrants from other African countries have also been seen boarding buses out of the country.
South Africa’s reputation as a haven for immigrants and asylum seekers is in tatters, and there are growing fears that the crisis could dent the lucrative tourism industry and cripple its hosting of the 2010 soccer World Cup.
Officials have raised the possibility that the attacks were not spontaneous but organized, possibly for political reasons. Four community leaders are among the more than 400 people arrested in connection with the violence.