Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday pledged to tackle xenophobia in South Africa as troops were sent in to support police in a crackdown against attacks on immigrants that have left seven people dead.
Overnight on Tuesday, 11 men were arrested in a joint police and army raid on a hostel in downtown Johannesburg, hours after the military was deployed.
After meeting business, civil and religious leaders, Zuma said his government would take decisive steps to address “underlying” problems behind the attacks and ensure foreigners were not targeted.
“South Africans are not xenophobic,” he said. “If we don't deal with the underlying issues, it will come back.”
“We have taken a decision that we don't want to see it again and therefore we are going to be working together with that determination.”
Zuma gave few details of government plans, but said the violence was driven by “criminal elements” as well as friction between foreigners and locals.
Many South Africans believe poverty and a severe jobs shortage is one driving factor behind mobs in Johannesburg and in the port city of Durban targeting migrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and other African countries.
The spate of attacks has revived memories of xenophobic bloodshed in 2008, when 62 people were killed, tarnishing South Africa's post-apartheid image as a “rainbow nation” of different groups living in harmony.
The South African army was deployed to restore order in the 2008 unrest, and was also used against violent strikers in 2012.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday condemned the latest wave of violence and called for “all efforts” to be made to avoid future attacks.
“He welcomes the public expressions of the many South Africans who have been calling for peaceful coexistence and harmony with foreign nationals,” Ban's spokesman said in a statement.
A mass anti-xenophobia march is planned in Johannesburg on Thursday, and Zuma is due to hold talks with groups representing foreign nationals living in South Africa on Friday.
Jessie Duarte, deputy general secretary of the ruling ANC, said the recent targeting of migrants was “well organised and co-ordinated” and that the army would only play a supporting role in preventing unrest.
“The army is there to assist the police (and) to ensure police are able to conduct searches,” she told a press conference.
“The issue we have here is poverty, inequality and unemployment - it is huge for us.”
Bene M'Poko, the Democratic Republic of Congo ambassador, told reporters at the event that the three weeks of violence threatened South Africa's reputation for tolerance.
“This is a sad day for South Africa... and also for the continent,” he said.
“The deployment of the army indicated that police are overwhelmed,” he added, accusing police of being slow to react.
Late on Tuesday, dozens of soldiers surrounded the workers' hostel in eastern Johannesburg that has been a hotspot for xenophobic clashes, and police stormed inside.
As a helicopter hovered overhead, officers moved from floor to floor conducting searches as residents lay face-down in corridors.
“Eleven suspects were arrested in Jeppe hostel for possession of dagga (cannabis) and stolen property, they were aged between 24 and 49,” police spokesman Solomon Makgale said.
The involvement of soldiers was criticised by the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party as an overreaction and a misuse of the military.
“(The) government is losing control over society and now resorting to extreme measures in the same manner done by the apartheid regime,” it said.
Regional relations have been strained by the attacks, with Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique organising for some worried citizens to return home.
Neighbouring Mozambique said more than 2 000 citizens had fled the violence.
Five buses also arrived back in Zimbabwe on Wednesday.
“I don't know what to do next,” said Wonder Nyamutowa, who worked as a construction worker in Durban.
“I am a breadwinner and I could manage to send money back to my family but I won't go back.”