It began after the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, told his followers last month that foreigners in South Africa should pack up and leave. President Jacob Zuma's eldest son, Edward, chimed in that foreigners were "taking over the country" in a "ticking time bomb."
Then last week, violent attacks on immigrant shopkeepers in Durban townships exploded and have continued since. Dozens of immigrants in Johannesburg and other cities shuttered their shops Wednesday as anonymous cellphone text messages warned that Zulu people were coming to kill immigrants in neighborhoods with large migrant populations.
One message read: "Wednesday, Zulu people are coming to town starting from Market (Street) their mission is to kill every foreigner on the road please pass this to all your contacts in case they come people should be on alert."
Another referred to an attack that "will be more destructive than ever before," and warned immigrants to stay indoors. "Take (it) serious our friends r killed like Cockroaches."
Violence spread in central Durban on Tuesday, after looters attacked shops owned by immigrants, some of whom armed themselves with machetes and knives. Five have died in the recent violence near Durban, along the country's southeast coast.
Violence targeting immigrant shopkeepers, fueled by hate speech, envy and high unemployment, has dogged South Africa for years, although it is often dismissed by police and government officials as criminal but not specifically aimed at immigrants. In 2008, 62 people were killed in attacks on immigrants in townships around Johannesburg.
"The situation is very tense. There are many foreign nationals who are fearing for their lives. Some of them want to go back to their homes in other countries. I've met many people who are worried and don't know what to do," said Mkululi White, spokesman for the African Disapora Forum, which represents immigrants in South Africa.
The victims are often Somalis, Mozambicans, Ethiopians, Malawians, Pakistanis and Nigerians and other Africans. Estimates of the immigrant population in South Africa range from 2 million to 5 million, according to Human Rights Watch.
Some 2,400 people fled their homes in the Durban violence this past week and have been living in makeshift camps.
On Friday, in the worst attack in the latest unrest, two Ethiopian brothers in Umlazi township near Durban were locked in their small shop in a shipping container, which had been set alight by a mob. Tescma Marcus, 22, died that night at a hospital, while his brother, Alex, 24, remains in a serious condition.
Mobs looted shops Wednesday in the KwaZulu-Natal city of Pietermaritzburg, and the African Diaspora Forum reported a threat to firebomb a building in the town of Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape, that houses many foreign-owned shops.
In January, more than 120 foreign-owned shops were looted, often while police stood by. Six people were killed in the violence. There were similar mass attacks on immigrant businesses in May, June and September. But organizations representing immigrants in South Africa say that low-level attacks in small towns occur almost weekly.
Bereje Fana, spokesman for the Ethiopian Community Assn., said the organization had been pressing South African authorities to take attacks in immigrants more seriously and to protect them, their homes and businesses. He blamed Zwelithini, the Zulu king, for careless remarks that ignited the recent attacks.
The worst of the violence has been in and around Durban, which is the capital of Kwa-Zulu Natal state, where Zulus are the largest ethnic group.
"We have heard it's going to continue," Fana said. "We're trying to highlight it and bring it to the attention of the authorities, to create awareness and protect their lives and protect their businesses."
President Zuma last week condemned attacks on foreign nationals, adding that his government was taking steps against illegal immigrants, including curbing illegal migration, arresting foreigners involved in crime, and shutting down unlicensed shops.
"Citizens should also provide information to the police if they know of foreign nationals who are engaged in criminal activities. They should not be attacked," Zuma said.
The leaders of informal associations representing South African owners of small cafes and shops have been blamed for stirring inflammatory sentiment in the past, accusing foreign shopkeepers of flooding the market with cheap, substandard goods and destroying South African jobs and businesses. Last month, a meeting in Soweto called on the government to stop treating foreigners with kid gloves.
It's not clear what the business owners want the government to do, however.
White, of the African Diaspora Forum, called on police to arrest those responsible.
"We think the perpetrators of this violence are some businesspeople from our own country who don't like to compete with businesses run by people from other countries," he said. "Our research has also shown that unemployment plays a big role, because the majority of the people who are attacking foreign businesses are unemployed."
FOR THE RECORD
1:14 p.m.: An earlier version of this post attributed the quote above to Prince Thulani Zulu.
White added that his organization was also concerned that comments by King Zwelithini and Edward Zuma played a role.
The king's spokesman, Prince Thulani Zulu, last week denied that the king's comments triggered the violence, and condemned those carrying it out.
"These are just thugs. The king has never said that people must be killed," Zulu said in comments to South African news media.
Last month, White said, he was in Ngcobo, in the Eastern Cape, where several immigrant shopkeepers had fled a mob of about 180 people.
"These attacks are going on all the time. There are also cases where foreign nationals are accused of doing something they didn't do, or officials demand bribes from them," he said.
Sinovuyo Ndlela, the African Diaspora Forum provincial organizer in the Eastern Cape, said the leader of a community group opposed to immigrants threatened Wednesday to firebomb a building in the town of Mthatha, where around 20 shops owned by Somalis and Ethiopians were located.
"He told me that they're going to do the same thing that is happening in Durban. They are saying that they stand for the community, they're fighting for youth. What is happening here in South Africa is that most of them [the instigators] are jealous of these foreign-owned businesses, saying they're selling things cheap," she said.
She said two weeks ago, in the town of Cofimvaba, Eastern Cape, a mob of several dozen people evicted an Ethiopian shopkeeper.
"There were about 100 guys chasing an Ethiopian guy, saying he must go home to his own country," she said. "There have been very many attacks in the past."