South Africa violence under control

May 27, 2008 12:00 am

, JOHANNESBURG, May 27 – South African President Thabo Mbeki was expected in Japan Tuesday, even as aid agencies warned that the crisis at home sparked by the wave of violence against foreigners was far from over.

Mbeki, was due in Japan for a two-day conference on African development, the foreign ministry announced.

He has come under pressure for what critics say has been his slow reaction to the anti-immigrant violence that has left 56 dead and 35,000 displaced.

And while the government was claiming Monday it had brought the two weeks of violence under control, aid groups warned of the health and logistical problems caused by the mass exodus of migrants fleeing the country.

In neighbouring Mozambique, authorities said 26,000 of its nationals had returned while Malawi on Monday announced the planned evacuation of 3,000 of its citizens. The Red Cross said it had prepared for the arrival of 25,000 fleeing Zimbabweans into Zambia.

As thousands headed for the borders, a growing humanitarian crisis wracked South Africa itself, with an estimated 35,000 displaced foreigners sheltering at police stations, community centres and churches.

President Thabo Mbeki, who made a rare address to the nation on Sunday to appeal for peace, chaired a meeting of a task force set up to deal with the unrest comprising 11 cabinet ministers.

"The situation is now under control," said Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula after two-and-a-half hours of talks. He said the death toll had risen to 56.

Immigrants in South Africa, many of whom have fled economic meltdown in neighbouring Zimbabwe, are being blamed for sky-high crime rates and for depriving locals of jobs.

Groups of armed youths have purged many poor slum areas around the Johannesburg hotspot, with unrest now reported in seven of the country’s nine provinces since violence first erupted on May 11.

In the wake of the violence, the Red Cross has complained of a lack of national coordination.

"The big problem is coordination of information between authorities and NGOs (non-governmental organisations). It’s not very well organised," Francoise Le Goff, director of the Red Cross in Southern Africa, told AFP.

"The government is still looking for shelters for people and we’re still in an emergency situation."

She added that "in Zambia, our teams are expecting the arrival of 25,000 Zimbabweans, or 5,000 families," while more than 5,000 Zimbabweans had been helped to Mozambique.

Muriel Cornelius, programme coordinator for South Africa for aid group Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF), told AFP: "The situation is about to get worse. People have still not received aid and they’re not even under tents.

"The reaction of civil society is incredible but it is not enough," she added.

In his address on Sunday, Mbeki called the violence against foreigners "an absolute disgrace" that had blemished the reputation of the country.

The problems are seen as a result of policy failures to address critical housing shortages, clandestine immigration and the poverty-ridden conditions in the slums that surround South Africa’s cities.

Mbeki and the government are now facing a backlash after being accused of failing to spot a rising tide of xenophobia and reacting slowly and ineffectively to the first attacks more than two weeks ago.

The president faced a front-page demand for his resignation from the Sunday Times newspaper at the weekend before he gave his first public address.

"It was too little, too late," the executive director of think-tank the Institute for Security Studies, Jakkie Cilliers, told AFP Monday.

"It was a very good speech but belated," analyst Sipho Seepe of the South African Institute of Race relations told public radio SABC.

Although the overall picture on Monday was one of calm after a crackdown by police, intelligence services and the army, flare-ups were still being reported and the atmosphere remained tense.

In the coastal city of Durban, five Mozambicans were seriously injured after being attacked on Sunday night, police said.

In Cape Town, police reported calm and in Johannesburg it was quiet with only a few shacks burnt.


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