President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday blasted vigilante groups for harassing migrants in South Africa, likening their behaviour to strategies adopted by the apartheid regime to target blacks.
Scores of people have been staging demonstrations in recent months against the proliferation of undocumented migrants in the country.
Last week a Zimbabwean man was killed and burnt in an apparent mob attack in the northern Johannesburg township of Diepsloot.
A small group of vigilantes had gone door-to-door demanding to see people’s identity documents after seven people in the township had been murdered the previous weekend. Angry residents complained that police were not doing enough to stem crime.
“We have seen people being stopped on the street by private citizens and being forced to produce identification to verify their immigration status,” Ramaphosa said in his weekly newsletter.
“This was how the apartheid oppressors operated.”
“Under apartheid, black people were deemed suspects by default and stopped by police when found in so-called white areas,” he said.
Blacks “were forced to produce a dompas (a passport-like document that restricted their movements) and if they could not do so, they were jailed.”
“We cannot allow such injustices to happen again.”
The murder of the seven South Africans in Diepsloot was a tragedy, he said.
“This loss of life is deplorable, as is the killing of a fellow African from Zimbabwe allegedly at the hands of vigilantes,” Ramaphosa said.
But he warned: “Today, our anger may be directed at nationals from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Nigeria or Pakistan. Tomorrow, our anger may be directed at each other.”
“Attacking those we suspect of wrongdoing merely because they are a foreign national is… immoral, racist and criminal. In the end, it will lead to xenophobia,” he said.
Competition for jobs, especially in low-skilled sectors, is also a factor in sharpening anti-immigrant resentment.
South Africa is buckling under one of the world’s highest joblessness rate — more than 35 percent of the workforce are unemployed.