By Peroshni Govender and Zaheer Cassim
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Destitute African migrants in South Africa's shanty towns fear they will be the target of attacks when the World Cup ends and locals make good on their threats to force them out of the country.
The World Cup, which has spread warm feelings of unity across the continent, will likely mark a respite in the sporadic attacks on the millions of Africans who have flooded into South Africa looking for work in mines and homes in the region's most prosperous country, experts have said.
The assaults, sometimes deadly, have the potential to dampen investor sentiment and embarrass President Jacob Zuma's government, which has pledged to reduce violence in a country whose reputation as Africa's economic engine has been undercut by its high crime rate.
"South Africans have been telling us to go back to our homes or else we will be sorry. They said they want to kill us," said Lydia Banda, a Malawian who works as a nanny and was a victim of the 2008 xenophobic attacks that killed 62 and left more than 100,000 homeless.
The potential for violence runs high because the migrants are seen by locals as willing to work for paltry wages and taking away menial jobs in the country where unemployment is at about 25 percent some 16 years after the end of apartheid.
"After the World Cup, there will be fewer police and we will be easy targets," said Banda, 32.
Zuma's government sees little indication of a repeat of the xenophobic attacks and pledged to protect migrants after Amnesty International accused it a few weeks ago of not doing enough to prevent violence.
But human rights organizations said threats of attacks are much higher than a year ago as impoverished South Africans have grown increasingly frustrated over the government's inability to provide basics including electricity, running water and schools.
There were 27 reports of violence and intimidation last year and already 18 in the first five months of this year, according to the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (Cormsa), a human rights group affiliated with the South African Red Cross and Amnesty International.
The violence in 2010 included the death of a Zimbabwean who was stoned and beaten with a hammer in an informal settlement north of Cape Town.
TENSIONS RUNNING HIGH
The South African Institute of Race Relations estimates the number of African migrants at about five million -- equal to the country's white population. About three million Zimbabweans have fled their homeland's economic collapse in the past decade for its richer South African neighbor.
On the streets of Yeoville in downtown Johannesburg, popular among migrants and a just a few kilometers (miles) from a World Cup stadium, African flags representing the continent's hopes for the tournament flew boldly.
Outside a Cameroonian bar, the highest-ranked African team in the World Cup, one supporter said: "We are not scared to openly support our team."
But just a few minutes away in downtown Johannesburg, a 45-year-old immigrant handyman who only gave his name as Thomas, said he was worried for what might be in store once the sports spectacle ends in July.
"(My neighbors) said, 'After the World Cup, you are dead. You come here and take our jobs, our houses and our women and we will not allow it anymore'," Thomas said.
"I left Zimbabwe because I did not want to die, now I have a similar problem."
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Michael Holden)