SOUTH AFRICA: Churches in drive to help prevent xenophobic attacks

July 14, 2010

The South African Council of Churches says it is taking measures in the country's nine provinces to assist possible victims of xenophobia following some attacks in the Western Cape province.

"We will set up the hotline where we will be collating complaints from any person that is threatened," said Eddie Makue, general secretary of the 27-member SACC, which includes Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant traditions as well as the Roman Catholic bishops.

Human rights organizations estimate that around three million Zimbabweans have fled hard times and political oppression in their own country to work in neighboring South Africa, which itself has high unemployment.

The July 9 announcement that the hotline would go live four days later to counter possible violent attacks came as many Zimbabweans in South Africa, particularly from Cape Town, were spotted on highways with their belongings, leaving to go back to their troubled country.

The South African government swiftly downplayed reports of xenophobic violence. The police and Nathi Mthethwa, chairperson of the inter-ministerial committee on xenophobia, revealed plans to tackle and eliminate the problem should it arise after the end of the 2010 soccer World Cup.

The churches-backed Solidarity Peace Trust urged authorities, notably the police, to respond decisively to the widespread threats and to act immediately against those fomenting violence.

"The trust calls on churches and community leaders to unite against xenophobic attacks and to demand that foreigners are given the protection they deserve," the group said. "We support the view of the South African Council of Churches that the threats of xenophobic violence are not based on unfounded rumors, as is claimed by certain government departments."

The trust said that if South African authorities fail to take the renewed threats of violence seriously, the events of 2008 may be repeated when at least 62 people died after attacks and more than 100,000 were displaced.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, a former archbishop of Cape Town, also pleaded that the government prevent any further xenophobic attacks.

Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, said: "We call on government and communities at all levels to confront the issue of violence in a proactive and productive manner that will make for peace and tolerance." Tlhagale reminded South Africa it is part of "international responsibilities to open our borders to those who are fleeing persecution and the breakdown of the economy of their own countries."

The National Religious Leaders' Forum which includes Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Ba'hai leaders as well as officials of Christian churches, met with South Africa President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria on July 1 to discuss the danger of xenophobic attacks after the World Cup.

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