JOHANNESBURG (AP) — President Jacob Zuma on Thursday urged South Africans to stop attacking immigrants from Africa and South Asia, but hundreds threatened peace marchers in a city where days of violence have killed at least five people.
In the days before the peace march in Durban, more than 2,000 foreigners fled to camps erected on sports fields around the city, afraid to return home, according to Gift of the Givers, an aid organization.
Zuma, in a speech to parliament that was broadcast live on TV, called the attacks "shocking and unacceptable," adding that "no amount of frustration and anger can ever justify the attacks on foreign nationals."
With unemployment and poverty levels high in South Africa, the immigrants are accused of taking jobs that should go to South Africans.
In the city of Durban along the Indian Ocean, one of Zuma's wives, Thobeka Madiba-Zuma encouraged thousands who had participated in a peace march. A short distance away, hundreds of locals gathered, jeering and insulting the participants, local broadcasters reported.
The U.S. ambassador to South Africa, who was born in the then Zaire to Haitian parents, spoke in defense of the immigrants.
"As an immigrant to my own country, my heart goes out to those who have been attacked for being different," said Patrick H. Gaspard in a statement emailed by the U.S. Embassy.
The fear felt by many was palpable as dozens of foreigners sought refuge at a police station outside of Johannesburg and stayed there overnight, according to a police spokesman, Col. Lungelo Dlamini.
Some foreigners from other African nations have armed themselves with machetes and knives.
The second spate of attacks this year in South Africa began after the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini, said that immigrants should "take their bags and go." Zulus comprise one of South Africa's largest ethnic groups.
"We must deal with our own lice," he said in a speech that was recorded and sent to local broadcaster eNCA. He also complained about foreign-owned shops.
South Africa's Human Rights Commission said it has received two complaints of hate speech levelled against the king. Commission spokesman Isaac Mangena said it has received several other complaints of xenophobia not directly related to the king's comments.
South Africa is a major destination for asylum seekers and refugees, and the country currently houses more than 300,000 asylum seekers, according to projections by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said UNHCR spokeswoman Tina Ghelli.
Minister of International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane will on Friday meet with diplomats from several African countries to discuss the government's efforts to protect immigrants, her office said in a statement.
The governments of Malawi and Zimbabwe have begun efforts to repatriate citizens affected by the attacks. Zimbabwean musicians have also called for a boycott of South African artists.
"Xenophobia today can easily mutate into genocide tomorrow. Stop It," tweeted Zimbabwe Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, adding that the Zulu king should "extinguish what he ignited."
In Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, some locals believed that Somalis would have been safer in their troubled native country, rather than South Africa.
"This must become a lesson for them to return home," said Khadra Hussein, a Mogadishu resident. "Otherwise, they will be eliminated one by one."
Associated Press writers Farai Mutsaka in Harare, Zimbabwe and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed to this report.