South African police have used stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannon to try to disperse anti-immigration protesters in the capital, Pretoria and keep them from foreign nationals who had gathered to express alarm about recent Xenophobic attacks.
A police official said 136 people had been arrested in the past 24 hours. Resentment against foreign nationals has sometimes turned deadly amid accusations that they take jobs from locals in a country where unemployment is more than 25%.
These same illegal immigrants are variously blamed for drug-dealing, prostitution, car jacking and other menial crimes in the nation.
In 2015, anti-immigrant riots in and around the city of Durban left at least six people dead. About 60 people were killed in similar violence seven years earlier.
On Friday protesters in Pretoria marched towards the foreign ministry, some carrying sticks or pipes. A petition was handed to the ministry in which they suggested the government teach immigrants to “speak properly”. The petition added: “They are arrogant and they don’t know how to talk to people, especially Nigerians.”
The Nelson Mandela Foundation criticised authorities for “giving permission for a march of hatred. We don’t have hate! We don’t have hate!” one foreign national was recorded as shouting in a video posted by local broadcaster eNCA.
A statement issued by President Jacob Zuma’s office said South Africans should not blame all crimes on foreign nationals. It cited recent reports of violence in Pretoria and hate speech on social media.
“Many citizens of other countries living in South Africa are law abiding and contribute to the economy of the country positively,” Zuma said. “It is wrong to brandish all non-nationals as drug dealers or human traffickers.”
Amnesty International accused the authorities of failing to “address toxic populist rhetoric that blames and scapegoats refugees and migrants”.
Zuma said South Africans were not xenophobic and he called on everyone, citizens and non-citizens, to work together to combat the high crime rate.
The periodic backlash against foreign nationals has hurt the tolerant image the country has tried to present since the end of apartheid almost 25 years ago.
Despite high unemployment, South Africa is one of continent’s largest economies and remains attractive for people across the continent. Businesses run by Somalis, Nigerians, Ethiopians and others are often targeted in anti-foreigner protests where stealing, burglaries and pilferage becomes the order. South Africa has a population of more than 55 million.