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World

Attacks On Foreigners On The Rise In South Africa

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

South Africa faces another wave of attacks on foreigners and foreign-owned businesses. It's not the first. Today, the government is allowing an anti-immigrant protest in Pretoria. The country is less welcoming than it once was to migrants from other African nations. Peter Granitz reports.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Violence erupted in South Africa's three major cities. Dozens of homes and businesses were looted, damaged and torched earlier this week in Pretoria. The attacks followed vigilante violence in Johannesburg, where residents assaulted Nigerians and burnt their homes, accusing the Nigerians of selling drugs and prostitution.

Earlier this month, three Somalis were killed in Cape Town in one day. Many blame the latest round of xenophobic violence on Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, who told South Africa's public broadcaster that law enforcement has been undermined by the government's failure to secure the border.

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MAYOR HERMAN MASHABA: South Africa's made to be a haven for criminals. They are compromised by the level of criminality that's in our city, with so many of these people in our country illegally with no documentation.

GRANITZ: Following the vigilantism in Joburg, Mashaba joined police himself and raided homes, looking for criminals. The move didn't sit well with everyone.

SHARON EKAMBARAM: It's really irresponsible of politicians to incite this kind of violence. And we lay the responsibility of the violence at his door.

GRANITZ: That's Sharon Ekambaram with Lawyers for Human Rights. She blamed the Pretoria violence on Mashaba's comments and actions. South Africa is indeed a haven for migrants. Since apartheid ended in 1994, South Africa has welcomed millions of them. But President Jacob Zuma says the country needs to change course. With an unemployment rate of 26 percent, the country cannot absorb migrants without special skills or those who are not fleeing violence.

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PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA: Most asylum-seekers are actually economic migrants. When they get asylum permits, they use these to work, study and operate businesses.

GRANITZ: Zuma calls South Africa one of the top 10 destination countries for asylum-seekers worldwide. Despite that, the country rejected 90 percent of the 60,000 applications it received last year. Part of the reason South Africa remains so attractive is the country's liberal asylum policies, says Abdirizak Ali Osman (ph), who escaped war-torn Somalia on a fishing boat in 2007.

ABDIRIZAK ALI OSMAN: Here, you are free. Once you've got your documentation, you'll fly like a bird - anywhere in the country, conducting businesses.

GRANITZ: South Africa allows asylum-seekers to live in cities and work and study. They don't live in camps, and they don't rely on aid organizations for food. Organizers of today's march say it will be peaceful - that they're just trying to express their frustrations with illegal immigration and crime. But migrants' rights groups say the march itself is an incitement to violence. And Sharon Ekambaram with Lawyers for Human Rights says the government should not have greenlighted the protest.

EKAMBARAM: It's scapegoating foreign nationals to appease citizens for votes.

GRANITZ: For his part, Joburg Mayor Herman Mashaba says he's being scapegoated and renounced xenophobia and called for calm. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Pretoria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASPHODEL'S "SKALPEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.