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South Africa warned not to forget its history, as police clamps down on xenophobic violence

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Foreign men from Malawi queue to board buses from a camp for those affected by anti-immigrant violence in Chatsworth north of Durban, April 18, 2015 REUTERS/Rogan Ward

South Africa is facing growing condemnation from its neighbours for its inability to reign in xenophobic violence. The spate of attacks on foreigners, has already claimed the lives of at least seven people, and is threatening the country's relations with the rest of the continent. On Sunday, the government vowed to find those responsible. But critics want to see action.


President Jacob Zuma was forced to cancel a state visit to Indonesia on Saturday to stay home and deal with the wave of racist attacks, warning perpetrators they would be severely dealt with.

More than three hundred people were arrested on Sunday, after Zuma visited refugee camps in Durban, where the violence broke out. These are rare moves for a government once blamed for its inaction in confronting xenophobic violence, as in 2008, when some 60 foreigners were killed.

If Jacob Zuma appears to be taking this new crisis more seriously, critics remain skeptical. "Since 2008, not a single person has been brought to justice," Piers Pigou of International Crisis group told RFI.

"We saw violence and looting in Soweto in January this year, a number of people were arrested, but we've seen no prosecution."

For other observers like John Allen, author of Desmond Tutu, Rabble-Rouser for Peace, the President stayed at home because he had to. "There is pressure from within Africa to clamp down on ethnic violence," Allen told RFI.

"South Africans have been expelled from Mozambique, and just the other day, a musical group which was to perform in Zimbabwe pulled out of that."

The recent attacks, which left some seven people dead, have seen tensions erupt between South Africans and immigrants from across the continent including Somalia, Ethiopia and Zimbabawe.

Fearing retaliation, South African businesses this weekend, issued a statement distancing themselves from the riots, which were sparked after Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini said foreigners should go back home.

But for observers like John Allen, the underlying problem is not xenophobia but poverty, as migrants compete for jobs with other poor black South Africans.

"The economy is growing at much too slow a rate to create the growth the country needs to make people’s lives better," Allen explained.

The biographer of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the champions of the apartheid era, says those carrying out the attacks have forgotten South Africa's history.

“It’s easy to get messages of peace and reconciliation to people, when they feel that there is progress being made... In the Mandela years, people knew that things couldn’t change over night, they knew that progress would be slow, but that’s not happened in recent years."

The government has gone to great lengths to reassure investors to continue doing business in Africa's most advanced economy. Yet the scale of the violence witnessed in some of the poorest townships indicates that it may also have to reassure local communities there.