Mbeki is to blame for xenophobic attacks, says watchdog

Aid workers in Johannesburg are struggling to feed and shelter the thousands of immigrants who have fled a wave of xenophobic attacks in which 24 people have been killed.

The Institute for Race Relations, a respected think-tank, blames the ANC government and President Thabo Mbeki for the violence, the worst South Africa has seen since the dying days of apartheid. Its chief executive, Frans Cronje, said corruption, failing law and order, economic mismanagement and lack of proper border controls "contributed to create a perfect storm of lawlessness, poverty and unfulfilled expectations which has now erupted into violence".

Armed gangs were continuing their attacks on refugees around the financial capital last night as Mr Mbeki prepared to fly to Tanzania for a conference.

Members of his administration claimed a shadowy "third force" was at work. They declined to say what that force was but blamed armed, drunken criminals for the violence. A spokesman said the National Intelligence Agency had joined the investigation into the causes of the attacks which erupted in the Alexandra township 11 days ago.

Since then, refugees from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi among other African nations have been shot at, burnt, raped, beaten and driven from their homes to seek protection at police stations and community halls.

Police have called in help from neighbouring provinces but as of last night, soldiers remained in their barracks.

The authorities estimate that about 10,000 people have fled their homes in townships, squatter camps and poorer suburbs in and around Johannesburg.

In one attack yesterday, a mob stormed a hostel in Reiger Park, east of the city, in their hunt for foreign workers. They found four Mozambican men who were working in the mines. One was beaten to death in his room and the other three dragged outside and beaten with metal poles before being dragged to nearby grassland and left for dead. By the time paramedics arrived, one had died. The other two were taken to hospital, but their condition was unclear last night.

The institute said: "The failure to protect communities from criminal elements and to remove those elements had allowed criminals to take full advantage of chaos and disorder to rob, rape, and loot. The collapse of proper border control mechanisms saw literally millions of people gaining entry to South Africa illegally. Poor policy decisions and simple incompetence in border policing therefore contributed directly to the presence of a large illegal population in South Africa. Without adequate legal standing in the community these people became easy or soft targets for mob violence."

An estimated five million refugees live in South Africa, 3.5 million of whom are believed to be Zimbabweans fleeing violence and economic chaos under Robert Mugabe. Gangs targeting refugees claim immigrants get preferential housing treatment, taking scarce jobs and committing crime.

The opposition Democratic Alliance again called on the government to mobilise troops to bring order. Jack Bloom, the party's leader in Gauteng province where the killings are taking place, said soldiers from two military bases could easily be deployed.

"President Thabo Mbeki is notoriously allergic to admitting that even the most obvious crisis is a crisis, so yet again people die because he is out of touch with reality, both here and in Zimbabwe," Mr Bloom said.

President Mbeki who is due to fly to Tanzania today for a two-day meeting of the African Union, has condemned the violence. He said: "Citizens from other countries on the African continent and beyond are as human as we are and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. South Africa is not and will never be an island separate from the rest of the continent."

Testimony of a reluctant witness

Yesterday, I witnessed a nightmare take place in broad daylight. Mobs hunting down foreigners, setting up roadblocks. They were cornering people, beating them up, and when they were done, they stole anything of value they had. I never thought it wouldbe my turn to pack up and move to a friend's house. But it's a crisis when you look outside your window and see someone running for his life, watch while they are cornered, then beaten almost to death with a brick, and the attackers laugh, as if it were all just a game. For an hour I heard the sounds of women screaming and babies crying while they raided the building next to me. I could not watch any more. No one should. You should never be allowed to watch an individual's dignity taken away from them. It kills outright the belief and trust you have in people. So what's next? You will probably have one less Zimbabwean at your office. But spare a thought for the gardener, the waiter and maid who wait on you because a lot of them are also from Zimbabwe. They are here because they don't have a choice. What they once valued has been taken away from them.

Kudzanai Chiurai is a Zimbabwean artist forced to flee to Johannesburg after painting Robert Mugabe with his head on fire