JOHANNESBURG - South African President Thabo Mbeki gave approval yesterday for the army to help end attacks on foreigners that have killed more than 40 people.
The attacks on African immigrants, accused by many poor South Africans of taking scarce jobs and fueling crime, have forced thousands of people from their homes, unnerved investors and hit the rand currency.
“President Thabo Mbeki has approved a request from the South African Police Service for the involvement of the South African National Defense Force in stopping ongoing attacks on foreign nationals,” a statement from the presidency said.
Police spokeswoman Sally de Beer said this would involve equipment and troops being deployed into affected townships.
“It will be in terms of equipment and personnel. They won’t be taking over the role of the police. They will be acting in support of us in specific operations,” she said.
Local media in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province said at least six immigrants were wounded in an overnight attack on a Nigerian-owned tavern in the port city of Durban.
Police said the death toll since the violence started on May 11 had risen to 42 by late yesterday. An additional 16,000 people had been driven from their homes and 400 arrested.
Police and provincial officials said the Durban attack was not sparked by xenophobia, but it increased fears the violence could spread from the Johannesburg area, where it first erupted.
The Inkatha Freedom Party, the ruling African National Congress’ main rival in KwaZulu-Natal, said anti-foreigner violence clearly had spread to the province - home to South Africa’s biggest ethnic group, the Zulus.
“We are … saddened by reports that such barbaric acts have spread to our province and Durban in particular,” it said.
Government officials raised the possibility the attacks on foreigners were not spontaneous but organized, possibly for political reasons. Four community leaders were arrested in the Johannesburg area yesterday.
The International Organization for Migration said on Tuesday that the violence had displaced 13,000 people.
South Africa’s currency fell sharply on Tuesday, owing largely to the violence. The rand was slightly firmer yesterday at about 7.65 to the U.S. dollar.
Flash points around Johannesburg were calmer yesterday. Police armored vehicles patrolled areas east of Johannesburg, and thick clouds of smoke hung over many squatter settlements.
But many African immigrants were taking no chances.
“We must leave. It is not safe here,” said a Zimbabwean woman who only gave her name as Amelia.
Government officials fear the crisis could damage the lucrative tourism industry and cripple the nation’s bid to host the 2010 soccer World Cup.