CAPE TOWN, South Africa – The United Nations refugee agency donated 2,000 tents to help South Africa shelter foreigners displaced by violent attacks, as critics accused the government of bungling its response.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also said it would help authorities find sites for temporary camps for an estimated 42,000 people in need of shelter.
"We hope that this initial donation will contribute to alleviating the suffering of displaced people," said Sanda Kimbimbi, UNHCR's regional representative for southern Africa.
Up to 100,000 people fled their homes amid xenophobic attacks that left 56 people dead throughout the country in the last three weeks. Calm has been restored, but many foreigners say they fear returning to communities that chased them out.
The South African government set up a task force to investigate the reasons for the attacks, but has not launched a coordinated relief plan. Task force spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi said the government needed outside help and advice because the scale and nature of the displacement were unprecedented.
"We are not familiar with such a situation," he said. "It is the first time we are seeing this experience in this country."
South Africa — considered the African powerhouse — has long been a refuge for people fleeing poverty or violence in other nations on the continent. Up to 3 million Zimbabweans alone are believed to be in South Africa because of the economic meltdown and political repression in their country.
But Zimbabwe's ambassador said his cash-strapped government had sent 10 buses and two trucks to pick up 1,000 Zimbabweans who wanted to return home. Ambassador Jonathan Kaya Moyo said the vehicles would leave Johannesburg on Saturday, and the returnees would be given land for resettlement, food, shelter and other amenities.
Mozambique launched a disaster management operation to help more than 30,000 of its citizens who have returned. The impoverished country's organization has embarrassed wealthy South Africa.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — the former wife of Nelson Mandela who is still widely dubbed "the mother of the nation" — lambasted the government's performance after she visited Johannesburg's Cleveland police station along with African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma.
"There are 1,700 people, including 160 children and 70 pregnant women, and you would have expected at least the health officials to be there, but there is nothing," she said in a rare interview with the weekly Mail and Guardian.
"No one is taking responsibility, and station commanders say they are referred from one government department to the next," she said. Madikizela-Mandela has given refuge to a Congolese family she found at the police station.
Thabo Masebe, spokesman for South Africa's Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, said that nearly 10,000 people — one third of them children — remained in police stations and other public buildings in the province. He said authorities hoped to move people over the weekend into temporary shelters, mainly small tents, with access to health care and other facilities.
Cape Town has responded most effectively to the crisis, ignoring the government's preference for small shelters and setting up large tent camps for thousands — even though these have been criticized as resembling internment camps.
But critics have questioned President Thabo Mbeki for being away much of the time; he returned late Thursday from Japan, and made just one televised address last week saying xenophobia was a national disgrace.
The Foreign Ministry brushed off reports that Nigeria will ask for compensation on behalf of its nationals. Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad on Friday donated $200,000 to help victims of the Chinese earthquake — prompting some to question the government's priorities.
Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka toured communities in Cape Town, where there was wide widespread looting last weekend. South African radio said she was told of local grievances that foreigners were receiving more help than South Africans, millions of whom remain without decent housing and services despite promises made since the 1994 end of apartheid.
Imtiaz Sooliman, head of the Gift of the Givers group providing relief supplies, suggested the government was struggling to balance the needs of both sides.
"They're considering the feeling on the ground. Are they more on the side of the immigrants or the people? You don't want to upset the masses," Sooliman said.
"It's not lack of will, it's a lack of skills," he said. "They want to do something, they just don't know how or what."