South Africa is sending the army to townships around Johannesburg and Durban in the first deployment to quell civilian unrest since 2008 after attacks against immigrants left at least seven people dead.
“We will deploy troops to volatile areas,” Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said in televised comments to reporters during a visit to Alexandra township in Johannesburg on Tuesday where a couple from Zimbabwe was shot late Monday. “We are deploying because it is an emergency.” The army will support police officers, who will take the lead in containing the violence, she said.
South Africa is experiencing its worst anti-immigrant attacks in seven years as mainly foreign shop owners in townships are being driven from their businesses. President Jacob Zuma canceled a state visit to Indonesia this week to deal with the crisis. Police say they have arrested 307 people for public order-related violence in the past two weeks, and the authorities have promised to prosecute perpetrators.
Some poor South Africans see immigrants as competitors for jobs and business opportunities in a country with a 24 percent unemployment rate and an economy hit by rolling power blackouts.
“It may be a belated effort to demonstrate especially to other governments in Africa and people in South Africa that they are willing to make the hard decision to try and get to grips with what is happening,” Roland Henwood, a politics lecturer at University of Pretoria, said Tuesday by phone. “Maybe they have information that this is out of the control of the police so they have to act with much more vigor.”
The army’s Military Command held an urgent meeting to discuss the impact of the violence “on national security and stability” and agreed to a police request to provide support, South African National Defence Force spokesman Xolani Mabanga said in an e-mailed statement.
“The Military Command of the SANDF wants to send a very strong message to those involved in these acts of violence and other criminal activities to desist from such acts,” Mabanga said. “The SANDF will not stand by and watch whilst innocent lives are being threatened.”
Residents of Alexandra said the army presence may help calm the unrest.
“It’s a good thing,” said Alphonso, a bearded 42-year-old man said as he repaired a leather shoe and sold candy and cigarettes from a table on the sidewalk. “Everyone is afraid of the army; it’s going to control the situation.” Originally from KwaZulu-Natal province and a resident of Alexandra for 20 years, he asked that his last name not be used for fear of being victimized.
While the violence has subsided since last week, the attacks are an embarrassment for South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, whose members sought refuge in many African nations during the fight against white minority rule.
Governments from Nigeria to Malawi and Zimbabwe have condemned the attacks and called on South African authorities to do more to contain the violence.
“It is clear that the ANC government is losing control over society and now resorting to extreme measures in the same manner done by the apartheid regime,” the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party said in a statement. “The crisis that confronts society is primarily a political crisis born of politicians who have failed to provide jobs for the people of South Africa, and who have failed to educate the nation on coexistence of all Africans, including socio-economic migrants.”
Four people appeared in a Johannesburg court on Tuesday on charges of involvement in the murder of a Mozambican man on April 18 that newspapers photographed and published. The Zimbabwean couple shot and injured in Alexandra on Monday night was confronted by three suspects allegedly posing as policemen.
Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini on Monday condemned attacks on foreign nationals as he tried to deflect criticism that his comments last month fueled violence that left at least seven people dead.
“Whether it be in rural or urban areas I ask all to adhere to the rule of law and show that we know how to behave,” Zwelithini told thousands of members of South Africa’s biggest ethnic group in the eastern port city of Durban. “We are a nation that loves peace. I ask for peace to reign, dear Zulu people.”
His speech followed comments the Durban-based Mercury newspaper cited him on March 23 as saying foreigners were depriving South Africans of economic opportunities and should return home. The king’s office said his comments were misinterpreted.
Jay Naicker, a police spokesman in Durban, said he hadn’t heard of the army’s deployment.
“I don’t know anything about it, but things have quietened down here,” he said by phone. “But I can’t comment as this may be an army matter.”
In January, at least six people died during attacks and looting of shops owned by mainly Somalis, Ethiopians and Pakistanis in townships around Johannesburg.
The anti-foreigner violence is the worst since 2008, when about 60 people were killed.