Air force helicopters were sent to back up South African police in Johannesburg’s sprawling Alexandra township after President Thabo Mbeki called for military intervention to help quell the unrest, aimed largely at immigrants from neighboring African countries.
The armed mobs largely accuse the immigrants of stealing jobs and spurring crime. Several people have been burned to death, and scores of shacks have been looted and torched, Reuters reported. Most of the targets have been on immigrants from Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
At least 42 people have been burnt alive, stabbed, shot or beaten to death since the violence began May 11, according to media reports.
A top leader of the ruling African National Congress criticized police for reacting too slowly to end the 11 days of the attacks, which have driven an estimated 15,000 people from their homes and prompted thousands to return to their countries.
“10,047 returned home in buses provided by the government, the number is likely to increase in the next days as long as violence unfolds in South Africa,” Mozambique’s Deputy Immigration Director Leonardo Boby told Reuters in Maputo.
Mbeki gave the order late Wednesday to call in the South African National Defense Force — for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994.
The attacks on African migrants have added to a sense of political instability at a time of power shortages, high food and fuel prices and dissatisfaction over Mbeki’s pro-business policies.
South Africa’s tourism industry also expects to suffer as the unrest has prompted travel warnings from Western nations and led some Africans to cancel visits.
South Africa has a population of about 50 million and is home to an estimated 5 million immigrants.
Many South Africans blame immigrant populations for both worsening the country’s crime and adding to the country’s unemployment problems.
“There are so many robberies and rapes here and people suspect the immigrants,” a South African man named Papi, 29, told the BBC. “So people don’t feel safe in their own country.”
Samuel Dhliwayo, a 30-year-old Zimbabwean who worked as a painter, told the AP he was considering going home despite the fact that that he would have to face soaring inflation, food shortages and an uptick of political violence since disputed March 29 elections. An estimated three million Zimbabweans have fled economic collapse at home for jobs in South Africa.
“I am thinking of going back to Zimbabwe, I’m too scared,” Dhliwayo said.