July 15, 2010 / 5:10 PM / 9 years ago

S.Africa World Cup party gives way to migrant fears

* Police move from World Cup stadiums to townships

* Some migrants leaving as fears of attack spread

* Government says alarm fuelled by hype and rumours

By Peroshni Govender

JOHANNESBURG, July 15 (Reuters) - President Jacob Zuma called on Thursday for “calm and unity” after reports African migrants were fleeing South Africa for fear of fresh xenophobic violence after the close of the World Cup soccer tournament.

A previous spate of anti-foreigner attacks in 2008 cut into investor confidence and another wave could weaken Zuma and mar the country’s image after its successful hosting of the Cup. “Let us isolate all elements who may have sinister agendas, who may want to create havoc and sow pain and destruction in communities, especially foreign nationals residing in our country,” Zuma said in a statement.

Almost as soon as Spain defeated the Netherlands in Sunday’s World Cup final, concerns flared about a relapse into attacks on migrants from neighbouring states competing for scarce jobs.

Police shifted from protecting foreign visitors at soccer stadiums to patrolling impoverished townships where migrants have lived as officials vowed no repeat of the violence two years ago that killed 62 and left more than 100,000 homeless.

But many migrants fear a rapid dissipation of feelings of African unity generated by the first World Cup ever held on the continent, stilling South African accusations that foreigners were stealing jobs at a time of 25 percent unemployment.

“I am going home because I am afraid. People have been telling me that after the World Cup there will be xenophobia,” said Jonathan, a migrant from Malawi who works as a cleaner in KwaZulu-Natal province on South Africa’s eastern coast.

The country’s liberal immigration policies have led to millions of Africans flocking to its borders where prospects for work as unskilled labour in the continent’s biggest economy, albeit few, are far better than what they can find at home.

Government officials have said the fear is real, but the threats of mass violence are based on hyped-up rumours.

HYPE OR WELL-GROUNDED FEAR?

Zuma’s government has accused the media of generating hype about a possible flare-up of race-related violence and said the threats were the work of criminals.

But the International Organisation for Migration reported this week Zimbabwean families were fleeing.

Local reports have said foreigners were leaving on buses while one migrant from Somalia told Reuters he was seeking refuge in a densely populated suburb after his store in a township was burned down.

“I was told every foreigner should go back home,” said Khadar Bashir, a 24-year-old Somali trader.

One of the difficulties in classifying the motive for attacks on migrants is the country’s alarmingly high crime rates. The poor from South Africa and abroad fall victim to violence daily in the state where murders average 50 per day.

Sixteen years since the end of white minority rule, millions of blacks still live in abject poverty and the African National Congress-led government has struggled to deliver on its promise of better living conditions.

“We are dealing with youth hiding behind xenophobia to do their criminal activities,” police commissioner Bheki Cele said of recent reports in local media of xenophobic attacks.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said separately: “Xenophobia is not going to happen. I call on people and the media not to be part of peddling this hysteria of a possible outbreak”. (Additional reporting by Zahir Cassim; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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