JOHANNESBURG – Fearful immigrants in South Africa who fled their homes because of threats and deadly attacks by South Africans said Sunday they were targeted in some cases by longtime neighbors and people who warned they would assault anyone carrying a foreign passport.
The immigrants spoke in interviews with The Associated Press at a tent camp after they hurriedly left Alexandra township in Johannesburg, where mobs attacked shops owned by people from other African countries, including Congo and Somalia. The violence there followed anti-immigrant riots in and around the coastal city of Durban that killed at least six people, recalling a bout of similar unrest in South Africa in 2008 in which about 60 people died.
The message from the mobs in Alexandra was, `"We don't want to see people with passports. We only want to see people with South African IDs,"' said Veronica Lechaea, who comes from the southern African country of Lesotho and has lived in South Africa since 2008. Lechaea, who works as an office cleaner in Johannesburg, left her home in Alexandra and sought refuge in a camp set up on the grounds of an Anglican church by Gift of the Givers, a South African charity.
The attacks stem from a perception that immigrants are taking jobs at the expense of South Africans in a country with high unemployment. Many people from other countries have entered South Africa illegally, though the government has said a large number are working legally and contributing to economic development.
Sandra Ngwanya, a chicken seller from Zimbabwe who also left her Alexandra home for the Gift of the Givers camp, said her neighbors told her: `"We are going to go door to door, taking your stuff and beating you. So we want you to go back to your country."'
Ngwanya, who has lived in South Africa since 2006 and married a South African, said she left her two young children with cousins and hoped to go home soon.
"They are saying it's quiet. The police are all over the place. I want to go and check on our stuff," said Ngwanya, whose husband works in a mine outside Johannesburg and planned to return to check on his family.
However, some people at the camp said the situation remained volatile.
"These people start in the night. In the day, it's fine," Nora Ngohveni, a Mozambican, said in a reference to the mobs. She spoke while sitting with her 6-year-old daughter, Sandra, on a mattress in a tent.
About 20 people are staying at the Gift of the Givers camp, though organizer Emily Thomas said more people are expected to arrive from another camp that was set up outside Johannesburg.
The South African government has provided food, shelter and other necessities to more than 1,000 people in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, which include Johannesburg and Durban respectively, authorities said in a statement. Police have arrested 307 suspects during the riots, the statement said.
Some immigrants at the Johannesburg camp attended a service in the red-brick building of Christ Church, which provided space for their shelter.
Rev. Bikitsha Njzumba led the congregation in prayer for those who died in the anti-immigrant violence as well as their families. Another reverend, Eve Abrahams, told the immigrants: "Just know that you're safe here."