Attacks against immigrants in South Africa spread Friday to the largest city, Johannesburg, raising fears of a weekend of violence in tense townships.
Hundreds of immigrants fled their homes and took shelter in police stations in different areas of the country as mobs attacked foreign-owned businesses and burned cars in the Jeppestown neighborhood east of Johannesburg.
The Kenyan government announced it would repatriate its citizens in South Africa to safety, after Malawi’s government began returning Malawians to their home country.
SASOL, an oil and petrochemicals company, evacuated 350 South African workers from a plant in Mozambique amid fears of reprisals for the attacks on foreigners in South Africa.
For years, South Africa has struggled to contain violent attacks against migrants from elsewhere in Africa and from other countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, in particular those who own shops and businesses in townships. With unemployment stubbornly high, locals accuse the immigrants of stealing jobs and undercutting small businesses owned by South Africans.
In 2008, 62 people were killed in a wave of xenophobic attacks in townships around Johannesburg. While violence occasionally spirals into widespread mayhem, low-level assaults on immigrant shopkeepers occur frequently in many parts of the country, according to activist organizations.
In recent days the southeastern coastal town of Durban saw riots and looting as mobs attacked immigrant-operated businesses and some foreigners armed themselves for protection.
Business groups have warned that the violence could lead to a backlash against South Africa and its companies' operations elsewhere on the continent.
Immigrants shut their shops in many parts of Johannesburg on Friday, and some packed their belongings and left during the daylight hours, fearing a weekend of violence. Police fired rubber bullets to disperse mobs in Jeppestown.
At least five people have been killed in the violence that began in Durban last week. The attacks followed comments from the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who last month called for foreigners to leave the country.
President Jacob Zuma and other government officials have called for a halt to the attacks and dozens of people have been arrested.
Theko Pharasi, the deputy police commissioner for Gauteng province, said Friday that numerous messages were circulating on cellphones and social media warning of impending attacks.
Follow @robyndixon_LAT on Twitter for news out of Africa