A South African Anglican archbishop and several others were injured Friday in scuffles at a Cape Town church where hundreds of foreigners had sought shelter, officials said.
The Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, was among a group of clergymen and human rights officials who were trying to address the foreigners, many of whom claim to be asylum-seekers.
More than 200 of them have been occupying a Methodist church in Cape Town after police removed them from the local offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where they had been staging a sit-in.
Pastor Alan Storey said he had asked them to vacate the church because “it is completely overcrowded, it’s not a safe environment. If there was a fire we would be left with people dead.”
But the situation deteriorated when Storey handed the microphone to a Congolese clergyman who was due to address the crowd.
The Congolese priest was greeted with howls of protest before a woman climbed onto the stage and grabbed the microphone from him. Then a group of people started slapping and punching him.
“Then the others came for us,” Chris Nissen, a senior official at South Africa Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), told AFP.
“To attack the archbishop is not only criminal, it’s not only disrespectful but it’s also ungrateful,” said Nissen, who was also injured.
– ‘Pandemonium’ –
A human rights commission official said the archbishop got a bump on the head.
More than half a dozen people received head and face injuries and had to go to hospital for X-rays, said another rights official.
Storey described the scene as “pandemonium”, adding: “The whole delegation was attacked”.
The SAHRC condemned “the violent attack and assault” and called on the police to arrest the perpetrators.
The foreigners, who are mainly from other African nations, say they suffer ill treatment and discrimination and want to be given a new life in a new country.
South Africa is home to 268,000 refugees and asylum seekers, according to the government. They are mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Over the past five weeks, hundreds of other foreigners had also staged a sit-in on the pavements in front of the UNHCR offices in the capital Pretoria.
On Thursday, they forced their way into the office grounds, erected tents and spread their belongings around the carpark. On Friday, police moved in and arrested them.
A similar protest was quashed in Cape Town after the demonstrators were forcefully evicted from the UNHCR building. They then moved into the Methodist church.
South Africa boasts some of the world’s most progressive asylum policies, allowing foreigners to apply for refugee status and work during the process.
As the continent’s most industrialised economy, South Africa is also a magnet for economic migrants — a situation that has stoked resentment among jobless South Africans.
A wave of xenophobic attacks in the Johannesburg area in September prompted a number of foreigners to call for help. Some have appealed to be relocated to another country.