“No amount of frustration or anger can ever justify the attacks on foreign nationals and the looting of their shops,” Zuma told lawmakers.
At least six people have been killed in Durban over the past two weeks in attacks targeting shops and homes owned by African nationals.
Both the Malawian and Mozambican governments have said they will help repatriate their citizens from South Africa.
Violence and looting has also spread to the economic capital Johannesburg with the police saying that six suspects had been arrested for allegedly breaking into foreigners’ shops.
Zuma said not all foreign nationals were in South Africa illegally. And while he acknowledged some of the underlying socio-economic issues, he reiterated that South Africans are not xenophobic.
Besides stating that the government will work to help and improve relations between South African citizens and foreign nationals, he announced measures to reallocate South African soldiers to the immigration service and put extra security on South African borders.
“Measures are also being put in place to improve controls and better regulate immigration into our country,” he said. “The capacity of the department of home affairs is being improved to enable it to better handle immigration issues, especially at the border posts,” the president added.
Gwede Mantashe, the secretary general of the ruling African National Congress, suggested that putting immigrants in camps and tightening immigration laws was the answer.
“Tightening immigration laws” is the solution, ANC head Mantashe told South African media. “If need be, establish refugee camps,” he says. “Home Affairs must be able to screen and record who comes to South Africa.”
A leading South African expert on diversity and xenophobia told RFI that she disagrees.
“Camps are absolutely not the way to go with a problem like this,” says Melissa Steyn, director of the Wits Center for Diversity Studies. “It creates all sorts of humanitarian issues, it also reinforces the idea of foreign nationals as being others to the nation,” she adds.
Although sociologist Steyn does not think immigration camps will stop xenophobic attacks, she agrees that immigration legislation needs to be enforced, but says this is frequently used as an excuse.
“We do have a lot of people who are not registered and in the country legally,” she says by telephone from Johannesburg. “But quite frankly I think that a lot of those discourses are just excuses on the part of South Africans who are xenophobic,” she adds.
King Goodwill Zwelithini, a traditional leader in KwaZulu-Natal, has been blamed for inciting the attacks.
Last month he was reported to have given a speech in which he demanded that immigrants “pack their bags and leave”.