Business Day/Sapa, 3 June 2008

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In yet another plea to halt xenophobic violence and the ill-treatment of foreigners, the Combined Group of Concerned Refugees Social Justice Coalition yesterday led a mass protest to Parliament. The group also laid the blame for the attacks at the feet of President Thabo Mbeki, Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool and Cape Town mayor Helen Zille. Tension ran high as thousands of legal immigrants and refugees from across Africa waved placards with the words, “Mbeki, you are very smart but you make Africa very ugly”, while refrains such as “Stop killing us, we are not chickens” echoed over the marchers’ public address system. At one point a skirmish broke out when a group broke away from the main crowd and surged towards a thin line of police officers. A bakkie carrying Somalis was seen fleeing the scene, and a plastic bottle was hurled after them by someone in the crowd, but police deny any serious wrongdoing. Minutes after the incident Capt Randall Stoffels, police communications officer, said: “I have just spoken to the operational commander, and he has reported that 4000 people attended the march and there were no incidents of violence. Participants are now dispersing and heading back to where they started.” Protest leaders said at media conference at the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) offices after the march they had lost faith in the government’s ability to protect them, and called for immediate and direct United Nations (UN) intervention. A memorandum addressed to Mbeki, the UN and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was handed over to a government official at Parliament. The document warned that the violence had moved from “xenophobia to a war against foreign nationals”, and called for financial compensation for all victims of xenophobia violence. The TAC’s Zackie Achmat told protesters: “You deserve more than an apology for the lack of moral leadership in SA.” He went on to blame Mbeki, Rasool and Zille for the conditions that caused the violence. At the same media conference, a Somali woman, known only as Fatima, from Soetwater refugee camp, gave an emotional speech. She removed her veil and told how the government leaders who had visited Soetwater looked at her and fellow displaced foreigners as if they were “monkeys”. Another refugee spokesman said the home affairs department issued all refugees with red IDs, making them an easy target for mobs.