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S.African violence echoes deadly 2008 precedent

The spate of attacks on foreigners in South Africa that has claimed the lives of at least seven people is chillingly reminiscent of even deadlier violence in 2008 that killed 62 and sent thousands seeking refuge.

Since then, xenophobic aggression has erupted repeatedly in South Africa, a country of 54 million people that also counts two million African immigrants, 300,000 refugees and asylum seekers and many illegal aliens.

But none of those outbreaks escalated to the deadly levels seen in 2008.

That wave of violence began in Alexandra, an impoverished township north of the economic capital Johannesburg, before spreading to most of the country’s other provinces.

On May 11 of that year, two migrant workers from neighbouring African nations died in the first of what became broadening assaults across South Africa.

Local police said attackers shot, stoned, whipped and robbed foreigners accused by township residents of being thieves.

During the following two weeks, immigrants — mostly from Zimbabwe and Mozambique — became victims of murder, rape and arson by assailants blaming them for rising criminal activity.

Roaming gangs of South African nationals wielding machetes and firearms began hunting down foreign residents around the former black ghettos of Johannesburg.

In some cases, victims were burned or beaten to death.

– ‘Shameful acts’ –

Criticised for his inaction in confronting the violence, then-president Thabo Mbeki on May 25 lashed out at the “shameful acts of a few have blemished the name of South Africa”.

In addition, for the first time since apartheid ended in 1994, the military was deployed to the worst-affected Johannesburg townships.

But attacks then erupted in the southeastern port town of Durban, where around 200 people armed with clubs and bottles fell upon foreigners they found.

The spree then spread to the Cape, and ultimately bloodied seven of South Africa’s nine provinces.

Worst hit was Gauteng province — home to both Johannesburg and the nation’s capital Pretoria — where 52 of the total 62 fatalities occurred.

Tens of thousands of panicked foreigners returned to their home countries, while others flocked to South African police stations, churches or community centres seeking protection.

Many of those people spent days or even weeks in such makeshift shelters before being transported to better-equipped camps.

On July 20, 2008, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered his apology to victims of the violence during a mass before thousands of worshippers.

“Those who have been victims, we want to tell them we are sorry and we will not repeat this.

“We won’t tolerate this,” he said, recalling the protection neighbouring countries offered militants struggling to end the nation’s apartheid regime.

“We were welcomed as exiles, as freedom fighters in those African lands. Could we really have forgotten so soon?”