Tensions mounted Thursday among foreigners displaced by xenophobic violence amid demands that the U.N. should step in to help with what looks set to become a long-term refugee crisis in Africa's richest country.
About 300 people, mainly Somalians, began a hunger strike in a camp north of South Africa's capital, Pretoria, after attacking aid workers and other foreigners, police said.
"The situation is tense in the sense that they are making threats," police spokesman Willie Baloyi said. "We are afraid that if they get a chance they will attack."
One police officer was seriously injured and two foreigners suffered minor injuries in clashes Wednesday. Protesters also cut an electricity cable and a water pipe in the camp.
In the southern town of George, one Somali man was killed in a knife fight with another Somali over donated clothes, police said.
More than 50 people were killed and some 40,000 foreigners fled their homes as a result of violence that erupted earlier this month in Johannesburg and spread to the rest of the country, according to central government figures — although this is likely to be a big underestimate.
In Cape Town alone, there are nearly 20,000 displaced people, divided among churches, community halls and tent camps. Other cities have proved less prepared for the emergency than Cape Town.
Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille was mobbed when she visited the city's largest camp — a tent city for 3,000 people right on the beach near one of South Africa's most famous scenic spots, the Cape of Good Hope.
A large crowd surrounded her, calling for U.N. protection and holding signs reading: "We don't want to stay in South Africa. We don't want to stay in a no-man's land."
Mothers with young babies lay on blankets inside a large striped marquee as dozens of people waited in line for food handouts on the Atlantic shore — a sight that would have been unthinkable last month in one of the world's tourist hot spots.
"It is a disaster," said Zille. "We don't have the resources or the experience to deal with displacement on this scale." She said city authorities were considering erecting more tent camps at holiday resorts around the coastline, despite criticism that the so-called safe sites resembled internment camps.
"It's not ideal, but we've got to do what we can," she said.
More than 30,000 Mozambicans have so far made the relatively short journey home, and many Malawians are following suit. Somalis — many of whom owned or worked in stores — also say they want to go back to their lawless, shattered country, but don't have the means to get there because it is too far and therefore they need U.N. help.
"You work, they rob you. You work again, they rob you again," said Mohamed Osman Haji, a Somali who has lived in South Africa for nine years and was staying with 1,000 others on a muddy military base with few facilities.
"They robbed me in Johannesburg so I moved down to Cape Town. They robbed me here," he said, holding up a tattered driving license saying he had no more need of it as thugs stole his car after they looted his shop.
When asked how many people wanted to return home, a large crowd of Somalis shouted with one voice: "All of us."
Many Zimbabweans — who are believed to make up the majority of South Africa's migrant community — say they can't go home because of the economic and political meltdown there.
"We don't want to go back to Zimbabwe, but we don't want to stay in South Africa," said Evelyn Davison, who was in a tent camp near the wine and fruit growing center of Somerset West, just outside Cape Town.
Yusef Hassan, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in South Africa, said the U.N. agency has given aid to those seeking shelter, and offered support to help authorities.
But he offered little hope to everyone demanding U.N. intervention.
"The responsibility to protect the rights of those people is that of the government that has given them asylum, and in this case that is the government of South Africa," Hassan said.
South Africa is the continent's economic and political powerhouse, attracting jobseekers from its poorer neighbors. But it also suffers staggeringly high unemployment and lack of decent housing and other services. Foreigners thus became easy targets for the long-simmering discontent over the government's failure to improve the life of millions of black South Africans, 14 years after the end of apartheid.
At the best of times, South Africa is one of the world's most crime-ridden countries, with more than 50 murders a day. But the violence of the past two weeks caught the government and everyone else by surprise.
Government spokesman Themba Maseko said the army was on standby should the violence flare up again. He said the government would rather have displaced people housed in small centers near their workplaces and schools rather than massive refugee camps.
But all the foreigners were adamant that they would never return to the communities that chased them out.
"Never," said Francoise Kanyamuneza, a nurse from Burundi.
"I'm too scared to go to work, too scared to send my children to school. I don't trust South Africans any more," she said.