A WAVE of xenophobic attacks escalated in South Africa’s seething townships yesterday, with mobs beating foreigners and setting some ablaze in scenes reminiscent of apartheid era violence.
The unrest has killed at least 22 people since last week and increased political instability at a time South Africa is struggling with dire power shortages, inflation and growing disaffection over the president’s pro-business policies.
Police fired rubber bullets at rioters in communities around Johannesburg and in the central business district.
Armed with knives, clubs and jugs of petrol, the mobs targeted mostly Zimbabweans and Mozambicans, the biggest groups among immigrants who are accused by the poor of taking jobs and fuelling the high rate of violent crime.
Women were raped, shops and homes looted and dozens of shacks burnt.
Scores have been arrested.
“This is a war,” said Lucas Zimila, a 60-year-old Mozambican man who was attacked by a machete-wielding mob while sleeping in his shack in Tembisa, north of Johannesburg, on Sunday night.
“They screamed at me to get out, that I didn’t belong here. Then they burned everything in my house,” said Zimila, who suffered a five-inch gash in his head.
The unrest is an embarrassment as the country hopes to encourage foreign visitors for the soccer World Cup in 2010.
The violence is an indicator of growing anger among those who complain they have been left out by new policies to promote business and investment.
South Africa, with a population of 50 million, is home to an estimated five million immigrants.
Foreigners from poorer countries have been lured by work and by one of the world’s most liberal immigration and refugee policies.
Immigrants say that far from being criminals, they are more often the victims of crime. Several said criminals were using the violence as cover to rob and loot.
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