South African police arrested more than 80 people and confirmed five deaths as riots in Johannesburg and Pretoria intensified, spreading to surrounding townships with roving groups attacking mainly foreign-owned shops.
The streets of Alexandra, within walking distance of the skyscrapers of Johannesburg’s financial centre Sandton, were littered with broken bricks and glass from buildings torched in overnight fires and debris from police battles with local groups.
Ethiopian shop owner, Abushe Dastaa, pointed to bare shelves and an empty fridge and told Reuters TV his entire shop was emptied and vandalised overnight.
“Even now we are scared to come this side,” he said. His store sells bread, milk and phone cards in the working class neighbourhood, regularly rattled by unrest and protests over living conditions and jobs.
The latest wave of unrest in South Africa raised fears of a recurrence of violence aimed at foreigners in 2015 in which seven people died. Before that, some 60 people were killed in a national wave of unrest in 2008.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was urgently sending a special envoy to meet with President Cyril Ramaphosa to secure the “safety of Nigerian citizens’ lives and property”.
Police have yet to pinpoint what triggered the violence, which began on Sunday when protesters with makeshift weapons roamed the streets of Pretoria’s business district pelting shops with rocks and petrol bombs and running off with goods.
High unemployment and widespread poverty are cited as possible triggers for the disturbances and attacks on immigrants, but some officials say the riots may be the work of criminal syndicates.
“We can’t rule out pure criminality, criminals using a sensitive situation where there are real grievances on issues of unemployment and foreign nationals,” police minister Bheki Cele told reporters.
Cele confirmed five people were killed in three days of rioting, but did not give further details on the circumstances, or on arrests.
He ruled out sending in the army, as government did in Cape Town in July to quell a spate of gang-related killings.
The premier of Gauteng province, David Makhura, said during an inspection of damage in Alexandra there was a “xenophobic sentiment” underlying attacks. He said 86 people around the province were arrested, seven in Alexandra.
Ramaphosa condemned the violence, saying in a video on Twitter “attacking businesses run by foreign nationals is totally unacceptable”.
Immigration to South Africa from the continent and parts of south-east Asia picked up in the early 1990s, spurred by the end of apartheid and the economic boom that followed.
In recent years immigration has become a sensitive issue, with anti-immigrant attacks, economic hardship and a government clampdown on immigrants and asylum seekers.