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Thousands of South Africans march against xenophobic violence

On April 23, thousands of South Africans marched in solidarity with foreign nationals and in opposition to recent attacks against immigrants.

With at least eight people being killed and thousands of others being displaced over the last few weeks, around 30,000 people marched through Johannesburg in order to assure immigrants that they are welcome in South Africa. Organized by a coalition of different groups along with the help of civil authorities, the People’s March Against Xenophobia, with a procession about three miles long, began in Pieter Roos Park in Hillbrow, a neighborhood known for its Nigerian immigrant population. The march passed through Johannesburg’s “Little Ethiopia” neighborhood on the east side of the city center and finally ended in Mary Fitzgerald Square in the neighborhood of Newtown. A silent vigil was also held in the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth.

“We wanted to show Africa and to show South Africa that we reject xenophobia, that we disassociate ourselves from violence against foreign people and that we stand for social justice and all people’s dignity,” Mark Heywood, the executive director of Section 27, an NGO, told Al Jazeera.

“I think we’ve seen a beautiful demonstration through some of the poorest parts of Johannesburg, where many migrant people live,” he added, “and I’ve seen on the faces of migrant people, both on the march, and on the sides of the street, some reassurance that South Africa is not something that is going to murder them and hurt them.”

The premier of South Africa’s Gauteng Province, David Makhura, who led the march along with other members of the provincial legislature, told the crowds in Johannesburg that “we will defeat xenophobia like we defeated apartheid.”

For the third time in the seven years, South Africa has experienced an epidemic of xenophobic violence aimed at Malawian, Somali, Ethiopian, Zimbabwean, Nigerian, Mozambican, and Asian immigrants. The violence began in Durban, a coastal city in eastern South Africa, on March 30 and soon spread to Johannesburg.

Remarks made by Goodwill Zwelithini, king of the Zulus, on March 20 have been blamed as the catalyst for this most recent outbreak of anti-immigrant violence. Zwelithini, the traditional leader of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, is reported to have compared foreigners to “head lice” and blamed them for taking jobs from South Africans.

“We must remove ticks and place them outside in the sun,” Zwelithini said. “We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and be sent back.”

Not long after those remarks, immigrant-owned shops were burned and looted and at least eight people have been killed, including Mozambican immigrant Emmanuel Sithole whose horrific stabbing was captured in photographs that went viral online.

Zwelithini has since insisted that he was taken out of context and that he doesn’t support violence.

In response to the violence, South Africa deployed the army to areas around Johannesburg and the KwaZulu-Natal province on April 21. President Jacob Zuma has stated that he would be facing this problem head-on but has yet to give much detail about how he will go about doing that.

“South Africans are not xenophobic,” he said to Al Jazeera. “If we don’t deal with the underlying issues, it will come back.”

The last epidemic of xenophobic attacks occurred in 2008 with a series of riots resulting in 62 people being killed and thousands displaced.

Official statistics list the unemployment rate at about 25 percent and list immigrants as making up about four percent of the population. Despite these facts, the fight against xenophobia in South Africa remains a long, hard struggle according to organizers.

“[T]oday was just a show of solidarity,” Heywood said. “The hard work has to be done tomorrow, and the day after, and the months after to make sure that this never happens again.”