Thabo Mbeki (photo), South Africa’s president, has approved the deployment of the army to quell violence against immigrants.
His office announced this after xenophobic attacks spread outside Johannesburg, to the city of Durban.
It is the first time, since the end of apartheid, that troops are being ordered out onto the streets, to quell unrest.
More than 20 people have died because of the violence, and 30,000 people are estimated to have left their homes.
Many of the people were sheltered in mosques and churches around Johannesburg, says the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Most of the three to five million foreigners living in South Africa are Zimbabweans, who are fleeing the poverty and violence in their country.
In Cape Town, a safety forum has been set up to try to prevent violence, while the Durban attack urged about 700 African migrants to seek refuge in a nearby church.
According to the police, a group armed with sticks and bottles attacked Nigerians who were drinking in a tavern overnight.
‘Scapegoats for criminals’
There are fears that the situation in Durban is exploiting by politicians.
“A mob of plus/minus 200 were gathering on the streets carrying bottles and knobkerries (wooden clubs) busy attacking people on the streets” Provincial police spokeswoman Superintendent Phindile Radebe told AFP news agency.
“They attacked one of the taverns there believed to be owned by Nigerians” she said.
Safety Minister Bheki Cele (photo), from KwaZulu-Natal’s Community, blamed Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party members, for being behind the Durban violance.
In a statement he said that “these are purely criminal activities and they will be dealt with decisively in ensuring that xenophobic attacks are not used as scapegoats for criminals who want to serve their own selfish interests.”
The first attacks on foreigners took place a week ago in the township of Alexandra, north of Johannesburg. Then violence spread to the city centre and accross the Gauteng region.
Many foreigners have sought refuge in police stations, churches and community halls, as mobs have been roaming townships, looking for immigrants.
To some South Africans, foreigners are taking jobs from locals and contributing to crime.
Earlier, South Africans have been urged to welcome foreigners by president Mbeki.