PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa (AFP) – More than 150 Somali-owned shops have been looted in four days of xenophobic violence in South Africa's coastal city of Port Elizabeth, police said Wednesday.
The ransacking of the small grocery shops was sparked by the killing of a 19-year-old South African boy by a Somali shop owner following an argument over cellphone airtime on Sunday.
"Since Sunday, when all the trouble started, 150 shops have been looted and it is spreading to other townships. The situation is still tense," police spokeswoman Sibongile Soci told AFP.
Some 111 people have been arrested in connection with the pillaging of the shops, popularly know as spazas, and will appear in court this week, she said.
The attacks have spiralled and spread to other areas, with locals claiming they were avenging the killing. In another township, a Chinese-owned shop was also looted.
"The situation in some of the townships in Port Elizabeth remains tense but stable with police still maintaining a strong presence," regional police said in a statement.
A police officer attending to one of the hot spots in a township north of the city was injured when a mob threw stones.
Amid widespread poverty and unemployment, frustration in South Africa's run-down neighbourhoods often boils over into anti-immigrant violence.
An explosion of deadly attacks in 2008 killed more than 60 people and displaced thousands into refugee-style camps.
The African Centre for Migration and Society, a think tank, says 140 foreigners were killed and 250 seriously injured in the country last year.
South Africa plays host to millions of asylum seekers and refugees from across the continent.
"We ran away from our country because of the war and now we are being treated as animals here by people we thought were our brothers," Faisal Ahmed, a Somali shop owner told AFP.
"We expect to be treated as fellow human beings."
Truckloads of anti-riot officers patrolled the streets of the townships on Wednesday.
The Somali national who allegedly killed the South African, appeared in court Monday but was released due to lack of evidence.
Eastern Cape Somali Association chairman Suleiman Hussein claimed some of his compatriots were also attacked with machetes and sticks, but police could not confirm that allegation.
Berhanu Taffan, another shop owner, spoke of widespread looting.
"Groups of people, some even older people who should stop their children from doing this, just come into our shops and start helping themselves to our stocks," said Taffan.
Asked why he was looting, a young man tersely replied to an AFP reporter: "We are hungry, that is why."
Port Elizabeth mayor Ben Fihla has described the attacks as "shameful" and "acts of criminality" that should not be tolerated.
A Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University social commentator Theodore Petrus said South Africans needed to correct the misconception that foreigners are here to take their jobs and women.
"Incorrect assumptions and perceptions are often exploited by those who would seek to use them to achieve a particular objective," he said.