JOHANNESBURG, May 21 – A wave of violence against foreigners in South Africa has forced 13,000 people to flee their homes, the UN said Tuesday, as President Thabo Mbeki pleaded for an end to a "shameful" show of xenophobia.,
As calls grew for the army to be sent in to quell the worst unrest since the end of apartheid, the scale of the damage was becoming apparent, both to the victims and the so-called Rainbow Nation’s new reputation for racial tolerance.
As police revealed the number of arrests had now risen to around 300, the United Nations’ International Organisation for Migration gave the first figures on the numbers who have been displaced.
"Thirteen thousand people had to flee their homes to seek refuge in churches and parish centres, and most didn’t take anything with them," IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy told AFP at its Geneva headquarters.
As well as the numbers made homeless, 24 are now believed to have died since violence first flared in the central Johannesburg township of Alexandra last week and then spread in other impoverished areas of the country’s economic hub.
Evening television pictures showed armed mobs conducting door-to-door searches for foreigners on Tuesday in one of the worst affected slum areas to the east of the city, with shacks set alight and road blocks set up to prevent people fleeing.
In the latest death, taking the toll to 24, a 24-year-old Mozambican man was assaulted and then set on fire on Tuesday morning near Brakpan to the east of Johannesburg, local police said, domestic news agency SAPA reported.
Calling for a halt to "these shameful and criminal acts", Mbeki said South Africa was bound together with other Africans and was not "an island separate from the rest of the continent".
"Citizens from other countries on the African continent and beyond are as human as we are and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity," added Mbeki, who spent much of the apartheid era in exile in neighbouring states.
"We have to look at whether we should at least be willing to talk about whether the army should be deployed," Jody Kollapen, chairman of the Human Rights Commission, told AFP.
"It sounds drastic but we are dealing with a situation that is volatile, that has proven to be highly unpredictable and quite devastating in how it has played out."
Jacob Zuma, leader of the ruling African National Congress party, echoed Kollapen, saying: "I would not rule out [bringing in the army] because we need to take the measures that are going to help us stop the violence."
"Criminals are using foreigners as a cover to do criminal things," he told the told the BBC World Service in an interview.
"Many Zimbabweans come as skilled workers, but blacks were deprived education in South Africa. Even if Zimbabweans didn’t come, they wouldn’t be able to take some of the jobs," Zuma said.
In Reiger Park informal settlement where several people were set alight by angry residents on Monday, an AFP photographer saw police fire rubber bullets to disperse a crowd of nearly 400, wielding machetes and sticks, after a tense stand-off.
Police in the inner city dispersed about 200 Nigerians, also carrying machetes and sticks, who were threatening to retaliate and attack South Africans.
Many South Africans have blamed immigrants for high levels of crime and unemployment. An estimated three million Zimbabweans are believed to have crossed into South Africa to escape the economic meltdown in their homeland.
Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, hoping to topple veteran President Robert Mugabe in a run-off election next month, condemned the "callous and brutal" violence which he said underscored the need to resolve the crisis in his homeland.
"The violence suffered by Zimbabweans is even more appalling when we remember that these refugees are not here out of choice, but instead are already victims of violence and economic hardship inflicted upon them by the Mugabe regime," said Tsvangirai.