Even as President Jacob Zuma was pleading with South Africans to halt their "shocking and unacceptable" violence against foreign migrants, another outbreak of anti-immigrant protests erupted in two major cities on Thursday, provoking rubber bullets and stun grenades from police who struggled to disperse the angry mobs.
Migrants from African and Asian countries have become scapegoats for the persistently high unemployment rate in South Africa. The waves of mob attacks have terrified foreigners and blighted the country's aspirations to moral leadership in the post-apartheid era.
At least four people have died in the latest anti-foreigner violence over the past two weeks, and several African governments are preparing emergency plans to evacuate their citizens from South Africa if the crisis worsens.
Many migrants are already closing their shops and sheltering in makeshift camps or fleeing home to countries such as Mozambique to escape the attacks. The protests continued on Thursday in eastern Johannesburg and central Durban, with mobs demanding that foreigners leave the country. Even a peace march in Durban was disrupted by the anti-immigrant protesters.
"No amount of frustration or anger can ever justify the attacks on foreign nationals and the looting of their shops," Mr. Zuma told the South African parliament on Thursday. "We condemn the violence in the strongest possible terms. We appeal for calm, an end to the violence and restraint. Criminal elements should not be allowed to take advantage of the concerns of citizens to sow mayhem and destruction."
Mr. Zuma reminded his listeners that many of the foreigners were refugees, and many were helping South Africa's economy by contributing scarce skills. He also reminded them that other African governments had played a key role in helping fight apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s.
But while his words were noble, Mr. Zuma's actions have been inadequate for the epidemic of violence that has haunted South Africa for many years. More than 60 people were killed in horrific assaults on foreigners in 2008, and similar attacks have continued sporadically since then, usually targeting African and Asian migrants who own small shops in South Africa's poorest communities. They are often unfairly blamed for the country's 25-per-cent unemployment rate and the lack of jobs for young people.
Despite the persistent violence, Mr. Zuma has ignored most of the anti-foreigner attacks in recent years. His son, Edward, and his close political ally, Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, have fuelled the attacks by demanding that foreigners should "pack their bags and leave." He made no attempt to dissociate himself from either man in his speech on Thursday.
Critics say the Zuma government has tried to have it both ways: officially condemning the anti-foreigner violence while unofficially lending support to xenophobic sentiments. Mr. Zuma, for example, recently announced a plan to prohibit foreigners from owning farmland in South Africa, prompting loud applause from his ruling party members in parliament.
Even his speech on Thursday – his first detailed response to the violence that has erupted repeatedly since January – contained strong hints that he shares the views of the anti-foreigner protesters. He said his government was "sympathetic to" some of the issues raised by protesters. He mentioned their complaints about illegal immigrants, the perception that foreigners commit crime, and "the increase in the number of shops or small businesses that have been taken over by foreign nationals."
He promised to tighten controls on immigration into South Africa and vowed to tackle "crime activities" at the borders. Instead of deploying South African troops to stop the violence, he is sending 350 soldiers to the country's border posts to work as immigration officers.