Foreign nationals are being attacked with "impunity" in South Africa, a leading human rights organization charged as the latest service delivery protests turned violent and several hundred residents turned their anger on Ethiopian refugees living in Siyathemba township, about 80km east of Johannesburg.
Service delivery protests erupted on 7 February in Siyathemba, a satellite township of Balfour, a rural town in Mpumalanga Province. Shops owned by foreign nationals were looted, more than 100 people, including women and children fled the township, and police arrested 22 people for public violence, according to reports.
Similar acts of xenophobia took place during service delivery protests eight months ago in the same township, when the perpetrators were also arrested but charges of public violence were subsequently dropped.
"Many of those affected by the violence ... were also victims of violence in July 2009, where the shops of foreign nationals were targeted following service delivery protests and around 100 people were displaced. Those who laid criminal charges relating to the violence and the damages were later intimidated into dropping these," the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in Southern Africa (CORMSA), said in a statement.
Amnesty International, a global rights watchdog, said in a statement: "There remains a culture of impunity for crimes against refugees and migrants [in South Africa]. There persists also low public awareness of the country's human rights obligations towards refugees and others in need of international protection."
Service delivery protests have become frequent in the post-apartheid era, and although most are peaceful demonstrations demanding that government fulfil their commitments to improve the lives of the majority, some spill over into violence and more often than not result in xenophobic violence.
Duncan Breen, CORMSA's advocacy officer, told IRIN that "issues of governance" often fuelled community frustrations, which could lead to outbreaks of xenophobic violence.
He said civil society and the police were developing early warning systems to provide an intelligence network of possible xenophobic outbreaks and/or violence, and government was establishing a national action plan to protect vulnerable people against xenophobia, which would fall under the aegis of the justice department.
In August 2009, President Jacob Zuma and a host of ministers descended unannounced on Balfour and Siyathemba in the aftermath of the violent service delivery protests and deplored the xenophobic violence, which was seen as a commitment by Zuma and his new government to provide service delivery in disadvantaged communities.
"Places like Balfour, which seem to be very remote - that's the places I'm going to be going to, unannounced, all the time, to get to know what are the problems, why didn't we deliver certain things," Zuma said during his visit.
"The ministers, together with the provincial and local leadership, agreed on short-, medium- and long-term interventions, which should begin to address challenges and concerns of communities," said a statement issued by his office after the visit.
The presidency undertook to alleviate poverty, support community projects, generate employment, build 100 homes "within the current financial year [which ends on 28 Feb 2010]" and improve transport infrastructure, among other things.
Tebogo Moagi, a member of the community steering committee and an organizer of the service delivery protest, told local media that the presidency's promises were empty.
The committee has demanded that Zuma return to the township to explain the government's inaction. "Since the protest [in July 2009] nothing has happened. We have had no response from the municipality," Moagi said.
Zuma is unlikely to accede to their demands; he is currently in Cape Town preparing for the opening of parliament on 11 February - which will also mark the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from jail - and has maintained a low profile since it emerged 10 days ago that he had fathered a daughter out of wedlock, now four months old.
In the first six weeks of 2010 foreigners were also attacked in Atteridgeville near Pretoria, Riviersonderend in the Western Cape, and Polokwane in Limpopo Province. Xenophobic violence erupted throughout South Africa in 2008, killing at least 62 people and displacing 100,000 others.
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