South African military joins police to tamp down attacks on foreigners

South Africa's military joins police in effort to stop wave of violence against foreigners

Security forces raided a men’s hostel outside Johannesburg as authorities deployed the South African military for the first time to crack down on recent violence against foreigners, most from other African countries.

The joint police and army operation, starting with the raid late Tuesday, marked a significant tougher response to the violence that began early this month. A backlash against the xenophobic attacks around the continent has threatened South African interests, with calls for boycotts against businesses and products.

There were no reports of fresh violence late Tuesday and Wednesday.

South Africa is a draw for many Africans, who come looking for jobs and opportunities to set up small shops and businesses. But with unemployment and poverty high in townships, foreign migrants are often resented, accused of stealing jobs and undermining small businesses.

African leaders have expressed horror at the attacks, which followed a speech by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini calling on immigrants to leave the country. The violence has left at least seven dead and has caused several countries -- including Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Nigeria -- to repatriate citizens or announce plans to do so. Protests condemning South Africa have been held across the continent.

South African companies had to pull staff members out of Mozambique last week, fearing reprisal attacks. South Africa closed the doors of its consulate in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, and its embassy in the capital, Abuja, after Nigerian protests.

One of South Africa’s most important trading partners, China, issued a travel warning Wednesday, cautioning citizens not to visit the African nation because of violent attacks. Britain and Australia issued similar advisories, raising fears that the crucial tourism industry could suffer.

The border with Mozambique was closed for two days last week after South African buses and trucks were stoned by angry protesters.

Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Moyo said in a recent tweet that repatriated Zimbabweans were saying the number killed in the violence was higher than reported.

“Some of SA's victims of xenophobic attacks repatriated to Zim say number of the dead & unidentified in mortuaries is being suppressed. Sad!” Moyo tweeted. A later tweet commended South Africa for deploying the military to stop attacks.

Police raided a hostel in suburban Jeppestown late Tuesday, bursting into dormitory rooms and smashing lockers, searching for looted goods. South African Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega told journalists that the site, home to dozens of men, had been identified as the source of attacks against foreign-owned shops.

The hostels are a remnant of the apartheid era, when South African workers from distant provinces, many of them gold miners, were housed in squalid group accommodations.

Phiyega said the police and army would target other xenophobia hot spots in coming days, in part to ease the fears of about 7,000 immigrants who have sought shelter in camps.

The deployment of the army comes after President Jacob Zuma visited camps for the displaced and vowed to stop the violence, and Zwelithini addressed crowds at a stadium in Durban on Monday, calling for an end to the killings and claiming that his comments about foreigners had been misconstrued. The king is facing hate speech charges at the South African Human Rights Commission after a complaint was filed last week.

Zuma called a meeting Wednesday of government agencies, businesses, religious leaders, trade unions and nongovernmental organizations, urging them to play a role in halting the attacks. He later said during a news conference that the government hadn’t expected a return of xenophobic violence after a wave of attacks against immigrants in 2008 killed 62 people.

“The issue we’re dealing with today was what is it that we are all going to do as a country, as citizens, as different sectors, to ensure that it will never happen again,” Zuma said.

He said South Africans were not generally xenophobic, but suffered a history of violent oppression during apartheid. He was concerned that his fellow South Africans were gaining a reputation for violence against foreigners and warned against the “excessive” use of the word "xenophobia."

“I don’t think we should use this simple word because ... it gives the wrong impression that South Africans are xenophobic,” he said. “We are not. There are a minority, and we will deal with that.”

The government also has called meetings with traditional, or tribal, leaders in a bid to curb the violence. The Johannesburg city government launched a hotline Tuesday for people to report attacks.

An Ethiopian man died early this month after his small shop in a shipping container was set alight and he and his brother were locked inside. In another incident that shocked South Africans, a Mozambican, Emmanuel Sithole, was attacked with a wrench and stabbed in Alexandra township Saturday and died of his wounds. A shocking photograph of one of the alleged killers, his knife raised to strike Sithole, his face contorted with rage, was on the front page of a South African newspaper Sunday.

Four suspects appeared in court Tuesday charged with Sithole’s slaying. Zuma said Wednesday that the attack was not xenophobic but criminal.

“It is now said this is how we kill people in South Africa," he said.

Follow @robyndixon_LAT on Twitter for news out of South Africa

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