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Xenophobia could return South Africa to violent past: Mbeki

Johannesburg - South African PresidentThabo Mbekion Sunday condemned two weeks of xenophobic violence that has claimed over 50 lives, mostly in the Johannesburg area, as an 'absolute disgrace' that could plunge the country back into a 'past of violent conflict.'

'The events of the past two weeks are an absolute disgrace,' Mbeki said in his first address to the nation on the crisis, which was carried on national radio and television.

'The shameful acts of a few have blemished the name of South Africa,' Mbeki said, calling the perpetrators 'criminal elements' that did not represent the majority of South Africans.

'Never since the birth of our democracy have we witnessed such callousness,' he said, warning that 'if it takes root it will take us back to a past of violent conflict, which no-one can afford.'

While acknowledging that residents of poor communities had genuine grievances, including access to jobs and housing, 'Nobody will be allowed to pervert those concerns by targeting vulnerable people from other countries,' Mbeki said.

He rejected calls from opposition parties for the establishment of refugee camps to manage the arrival of migrants from neighbouring countries.

An estimated 1-3 million Zimbabweans alone have made their home in South Africa in recent years, putting pressure on resources.

'It would be wrong to isolate and segregate our foreign guests in special camps,' he said, stressing migrants had to be integrated into communities.

Responding to allegations by many poor South Africans that migrants take their jobs, Mbeki noted: 'We must never forget our economy was built on the combined labour of Africans drawn from all countries in our region.'

Mbeki's comments came as senior members of government and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) fanned out across troubled spots Sunday to meet with residents.

Mbeki himself has yet to visit any of the affected areas or meet with any victims.

His arch-rival, ANC leader Jacob Zuma, got a frosty response from residents of Springs community, east of Johannesburg, where he addressed a community meeting.

Zuma told the gathering the violence had to cease before their grievances could be addressed.

Seven out of nine provinces have by now experienced incidents of xenophobia, that have killed 50 people in the Johannesburg area, with at least one more fatality reported in Mpumalanga province last week.

In Cape Town, Mayor Helen Zille said she had arranged to accommodate some of the over 10,000 migrants that have been driven from their homes around the city in an army base.

Nationwide, the crisis has displaced over 44,000 and led to over 600 arrests, the Sunday Times reported.

Many terrified migrants have taken the road home to Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and other countries of origin. Mozambique has declared a national emergency as over 26,000 of its nationals, pour back across its border with South Africa.

A chartered train took a further 2,000 home on Saturday night, the Times reported.

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