South Africa sought diplomatic support from countries across Africa to defeat the "demon" of anti-immigrant violence in the country, in which at least four people have been killed over the past fortnight.
Non-nationals have complained that the South African police are failing to protect them, raising the prospect of a row between Pretoria and its neighbours, as well as stirring hostility toward South Africans working abroad.
The unrest, which began in the port town of Durban, has spread to Johannesburg, where police fired rubber bullets and a stun grenade to end a stand-off between South Africans and an immigrant vigilante group armed with machetes.
“We believe that working together we can defeat this demon,” South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters after meeting African diplomats in Pretoria. “We all have to nip this in the bud.”
The Malawi government has hired buses to repatriate 500 of its nationals, Malawi information minister Kondwani Nankhumwa said. He urged South Africa to provide greater protection for immigrants, echoing demands from China and the African Union.
Kenya and some other African governments have also offered to evacuate any of their citizens who feel threatened, while local people in neighbouring Mozambique temporarily blocked a road leading to the South African frontier in protest at the violence.
Chadian ambassador Mahamoud Adam Bachir told reporters the Pretoria meeting had helped to alleviate some safety concerns. “It went better than expected. We were assured of the security of our nationals,” he said.
South Africa, with a population of about 50 million, is home to an estimated 5 million immigrants, from countries including Somalia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, and those further afield, including China and Pakistan. Many immigrants own shops or sell wares on street corners or in markets.
Periodic outbreaks of anti-immigrant violence have been blamed on high unemployment, officially estimated at about 25 percent. Economists say that in reality that figure is much higher, given widespread poverty and glaring income disparities.
Petrochemicals group Sasol said it would repatriate 340 South Africans working in Mozambique after local employees at one of its gas projects protested about their presence.
Separately, an industry source said Mozambican employees at a sub-contractor for mining group Vale had become "hostile" to South Africans working on the Moatize project in that country but there had been no violence.
The Ressano Garcia border post between South Africa and Mozambique was closed after about 200 Mozambicans barricaded a road approaching the crossing, police said. Traffic later resumed after police dispersed protesters.
China, a major trade partner of South Africa, said on Thursday that Chinese-run shops had been damaged in Johannesburg. The Chinese consulate lodged a complaint with the police and asked that they ensure the safety of Chinese people.
The latest wave of unrest began after Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini was quoted by local media as saying that foreigners should leave South Africa. He has since said his comments were misinterpreted and has urged residents to be calm.
Johannesburg was the centre of anti-foreigner attacks in 2008 that killed more than 60 people.