The death toll from two weeks of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa rose to 50 on Sunday as concerns mounted for an estimated 35,000 people displaced by the backlash.
As thousands headed for the borders to return home, a growing humanitarian crisis was developing domestically as hordes of foreigners fled their slum homes and poured into police stations, community centers and churches.
Government leaders descended on troubled spots around the country in a bid to answer criticism of official dithering as Sunday newspapers carried alarming headlines such as “State of Emergency” and “Ethnic Cleansing, SA Style.”
The president of the ruling African National Congress Jacob Zuma faced an angry crowd in a rundown area east of Johannesburg where he urged people to be tolerant of foreigners.
“Fighting won’t solve your problems but will instead exacerbate them and they will therefore remain unsolved,” he said as locals demanded the government deal with crime and unemployment they blame on immigrants.
The Red Cross in South Africa said it is caring for 25,000 destitute people around violence hotspot Johannesburg with another 10,000 sheltering at community centers in the tourist hub of Cape Town.
Police said 50 people had died in the wave of murders, rapes and looting in the Johannesburg region, which began on May 11 before spreading nationwide. An estimated 700 people have been arrested.
National police spokesman Dennis Adriao said there was fresh violence in four provinces overnight, but that there had been no new fatalities.
South African President Thabo Mbeki on Sunday night broke his virtual silence on the deadly violence against immigrants from other parts of Africa, condemning the attacks as an “absolute disgrace”.
In his first major speech to South Africa on the violence that has gripped the country for the past two weeks, the president called for an end to “cold-blooded acts of murder, brutal assault, looting” that have left more than 50 people dead and tens of thousands fleeing their homes.
But Mbeki’s televised speech came amid growing criticism of his lack of leadership during two weeks of attacks that have spread nationwide while the government stands accused of failing to act decisively to confront the violence or acknowledge its causes.
The president described the attacks as “savagery” and called on South Africans to remember the support of other countries on the continent during the struggle against apartheid. He also warned that the targeting of foreigners has spilled over to attacks on South Africans.
“What begins as attacks against people from other countries also involves, as we have seen, the killing, the raping, the looting of property belonging to fellow South Africans,” he said. “This is a time for unity. It is a time to speak with one voice against something, that if it takes root, will take us back to a past of violent conflict which no one among us can afford.”
Mbeki ruled out putting into camps the estimated 3 million refugees from Zimbabwe, and people fleeing conflict in other parts of the continent, and said they must be integrated into South African communities.
Critics have accused Mbeki of failing to heed the warning signs of looming violence and then hesitating to act when the killing began. The president waited 10 days to send troops into the townships.
South Africa’s largest-selling newspaper, the Sunday Times, said Mbeki should resign because he has “shown himself to be not only uncaring but utterly incompetent.”
“Throughout the crisis — arguably the most grave, dark and repulsive moment in the life of our young nation — Mbeki has demonstrated that he no longer has the heart to lead,” the paper said in a front-page editorial.
The government has sought to deflect charges that Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” in dealing with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe contributed to millions of Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa, and that he then failed to treat the influx as a refugee crisis.
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