S. Africans Target Foreigners over Job Fears

Foreigners accused of taking scarce jobs in Johannesburg have drawn the deadly wrath of South Africans. As many as a dozen people were killed in weekend violence. Hundreds of foreigners — many from Zimbabwe — are taking refuge in police stations and churches.

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South Africa has been gripped by a wave of violence against immigrants. Mobs, angry over the lack of jobs and housing, have been attacking immigrants living in townships around Johannesburg. Police says since the attacks began last week nearly two dozen people have been killed and thousand of foreigners are now taking shelter in churches and police stations, frightened for their lives.

Robyn Kriel has the story from Johannesburg.

ROBYN KRIEL: A field of foreigners, hundreds of Africans from countries across the continent now hiding from angry South African mobs in a Johannesburg police station. The Zimbabweans, Congolese, Burundians, Malawians - over 1,500 foreigners sleeping in the open and the grassy courtyard. Some have blankets, others clutch on to whatever belongings they escaped with. They say they haven't eaten for 24 hours. Maddo Mazanga(ph) of Rwanda explains to a group of Congolese and Rwandan women how she was brutalized on her way home from church.

Ms. MADDO MAZANGA: Yeah, they beat us. They took all of our stuff (unintelligible) They took everything.

KRIEL: She is livid. She and her young son are now homeless.

Ms. MAZANGA: They are taking me from (unintelligible). They started beating me. They (unintelligible) they - I call a police. They come - (unintelligible) now with no food, nothing. I'm suffering.

KRIEL: Most of the foreigners, like Mazanga, fled their respective countries because of war. Others like Kendayma Bena(ph) of Zimbabwe left because of her country's failing economy. She and her blind mother work as vendors in South Africa selling sweets and drinks.

Ms. KENDAYMA BENA (Vendor): We sleep outside, no problem. (Unintelligible). But they must stop to beat us in (unintelligible). No one wants to go back to our country. We didn't say we want to go back to our country.

KRIEL: Groups of angry South Africans are roaming the streets of Johannesburg demanding to see proof of nationality. If those accosted cannot prove to be South African, they are beaten, some by machetes, others rocks. One man was wrapped in his blanket and burned alive.

A Malawian sits on the steps of the police station with his bandaged head in his hands. He and his friends were beaten with iron bag near his apartment. A Zimbabwean mechanic, John Mashanu(ph), sits next to him and explains how he escaped an altercation in a taxi.

Mr. JOHN MANU (Mechanic): Everything (unintelligible) lifted up. Now, I don't know how (unintelligible)

KRIEL: He doesn't know how he's going to work with a broken hand. Police have opened fire with rubber bullets on rioters in communities in and around Johannesburg. They say that more than 200 people have been arrested on charges including murder, rape and robbery. Reservists and officers from elsewhere in the country are being called in to help with the situation.

The situation outside the police station is tense. Small groups gather in the field speaking angrily in their native languages. Kendayma Bena strokes her 4-year-old daughter's head as she reiterates that she will leave South Africa as soon as possible, no matter how bad the situation is in Zimbabwe.

Ms. BENA: (Unintelligible) No one is going to (unintelligible) but my family (unintelligible)

KRIEL: For now the foreigners rely on the kindness of churches to feed them and the force of the South African police to protect them. Once again, they are refugees.

For NPR News, I'm Robyn Kriel in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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