Looters run down a street in Orlando East after raiding a shop. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso

Johannesburg - Government must protect all people in South Africa and prosecute those perpetrating violence, including non-South Africans, Sonke Gender Justice said on Tuesday.

“There is no space for any violence against people based on their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or identity, ethnicity, disability, religion or creed,” it said in a statement.

A week of unrest and looting of foreign-owned shops began in Soweto last Monday, when a foreign shopowner allegedly shot dead 14-year-old Siphiwe Mahori. The boy was apparently part of a group trying to break into his shop.

The looting then spread to other parts of Gauteng, including Diepsloot in the north of Johannesburg, and Kagiso on the West Rand.

Sonke spokeswoman Czerina Patel said during apartheid, neighbouring countries gave refuge to those fighting for freedom.

“All South Africans have a responsibility to speak out against violence meted out against vulnerable or marginalised people,” said Patel.

“But also, to ensure that South Africa’s international reputation as a country that embraces equality and human rights is not damaged by those who seek to oppress on the basis of difference.”

Sonke said the looting and violence drew attention to ongoing levels of xenophobia in South Africa. At least 62 people were killed during widespread xenophobic attacks in May 2008.

The organisation cited research by the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand that xenophobic attacks did not stop in May 2008.

“In fact more people havedied in attacks against foreign nationalsevery year than in 2008. Many reports cite government inaction as one reason for the continued violence,” Sonke said.

It called on government to increase efforts to protect everyone within South Africa's borders, and to provide leadership to stop the violence.

Saint Expedit Ondzongo, a trainer with Sonke's refugee health and rights programme, said often misunderstanding or misinformation, such as the belief that foreigners came to South Africa to take local jobs, led to xenophobia.

“This violence and hostility hurts South Africans and non-South Africans,” he said.