Published May 28, 2008
CAPE TOWN, South Africa , South Africa – One of South Africa's most famous beauty spots is now a scene of disgrace.
Just out of sight of the tour buses that flock to the Cape of Good Hope, more than 2,000 foreigners are crammed into a makeshift refugee camp on the shores of the Atlantic, seeking protection from xenophobic attacks that have killed more than 50 people across the country and devastated South Africa's image as a haven of stability.
Nearly 19,000 people are in shelters after fleeing Cape Town over the weekend as the violence spread from Johannesburg to the so-called Mother City, which prides itself on tolerance and is the jewel in South Africa's tourist crown.
"These attacks threaten to negate the gains we have made since the end of apartheid," Chief Justice Pius Langa told a somber crowd in Cape Town's cathedral on Tuesday.
"Are we as a society going to allow ourselves to be sabotaged?" said Langa, who like many in the congregation wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "foreigner."
Cape Town authorities held an emergency meeting with representatives of the tourist industry and set up a team to assess the impact on bookings and cancellations. The fear is that photos of a burning Mozambican man that made front pages of newspapers around the world last week will displace Table Mountain as the face of South Africa.
Nearly 1 million people — many of them foreigners — work in the tourism industry in Cape Town. The city is one Africa's most popular destinations, thanks to its iconic mountain, pristine beaches, spectacular vistas and rolling vineyards.
Tourism accounts for more than one-fifth of the province's income, and it is hoped that will increase if South Africa achieves its target of attracting 10 million visitors by 2010, when it hosts soccer's World Cup.
The xenophobic violence "will have an impact and it will remain with us for quite some time," said Mariette du Toit-Helmbold, chief executive of Cape Town Tourism, a promotional agency. "The image of the destination will suffer, that's beyond question."
President Thabo Mbeki called the attacks an "absolute disgrace."
Impoverished neighbors Mozambique and Malawi have organized the mass repatriation of their citizens from South Africa. By Tuesday, some 27,500 Mozambicans had returned home, although the influx was slowing from last week's peak, officials said.
Nigeria demanded reparation for its citizens. Foreign Minister Ojo Madueke said late Tuesday that officials had compiled a list of Nigerians attacked or looted.
Antonio Marcos, among those receiving food and water at a camp near Mozambique's capital, Maputo, said thugs in South Africa beat him. He said he left his brother behind in the panic.
"I don't know whether he is still alive," Marcos said.
Even Somalis, many of whom have been in South Africa for years, said they wanted to return to their lawless country, which doesn't even have a functioning central government.
"I want to die in my country. It's better than here," said Hassan Abdullah Ahmed, who waited with hundreds of compatriots to be registered at the Soetwater camp, a popular picnic area that is one of six designated "safety sites" set up by Cape Town authorities.
Conditions at Soetwater were generally good, but refugees at some of the other sites complained of cold and unsanitary conditions. Human rights activists warned of a growing risk of disease and ailments such as diarrhea.
Farxiyo Ali Dhicisow, a Somali refugee who fled a nearby shanty town, said it was the second time her family had been attacked and their store looted.
"They took everything. I can't go back there. I can't," she sobbed.
Some South Africans accuse foreigners of taking scarce jobs and houses. But political and security leaders say that much of the violence and the looting — especially in Cape Town — was the work of common criminals.
In the scenic fishing resort of Hout Bay, Zimbabweans who fled the economic meltdown and political repression at home and sell beadwork on the beach said they had sought sanctuary in a local church.
While they were in the church, thieves broke into their shack and stole their meager possessions.