DURBAN – More than 3,900 people — including 1,650 illegal immigrants — have been arrested in South Africa during a controversial police crackdown after April’s deadly xenophobic violence, authorities said Sunday. “We are satisfied that we have stabilised the situation and further loss of life has been prevented,” a government statement said.
“Security agencies continue to work around the clock to protect both foreign nationals and South African citizens against any attacks.” The crackdown came after at least seven people were killed as mobs hunted down migrant workers from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other African countries, forcing hundreds of terrified families to abandon their homes.
Rampant unemployment and poverty are seen as an underlying cause of the violence by South Africans who accused migrants of stealing their jobs.
The arrests of illegal immigrants has prompted charges that the government was fanning xenophobic sentiment, though authorities categorically denied that the operation targeted foreigners. Some 2,260 South Africans have been arrested on a variety of charges since the operation began.
“We will, in the next weeks and months, accelerate our efforts to take back public buildings that have been hijacked, either by foreign nationals or by South Africans; rid our townships and villages of drugs … that are destroying the lives of many young people,” the government statement added.
Authorities are also going to continue with expulsions of foreigners. More than 400 Mozambicans were expelled on Friday and 427 others in SA illegally are slated to be kicked out in the coming days.
While President Jacob Zuma has denounced the anti-immigrant violence he also promised to step up a crackdown on illegal immigration.
The police operation was strongly criticised during a rally Saturday in an immigrant neighbourhood in Johannesburg. “Its timing, coming in the wake of the violent attacks targeting in particular people of African origin, feeds into the misconceptions that migrants are to blame for all our social and economic ills,” said Zwelinzima Vavi, ex-secretary general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has attracted millions of migrants fleeing political and economic turmoil in their own countries.
Zimbabweans account for the largest population of migrants in South Africa, with some analysts estimating they make up 23% of the whole workforce.
With a youth unemployment rate of over 50% and a slowing economy, cheap foreign labour is a hot political issue.