Hundreds of immigrants boarded crowded buses for Mozambique and other African nations Thursday, passing bags and even babies through the windows in a rush to flee violent attacks against outsiders that have left 42 dead.
But many other immigrants — drawn to South Africa by hopes of a better life — say they have nowhere to run despite violence that has forced more than 25,000 from their homes.
South Africa's poorest have increasingly come to blame migrants from Zimbabwe and other African countries for domestic problems such as crime and unemployment. The frustration boiled over two weeks ago, when mobs tore through the slums of Johannesburg, leaving foreign victims burned alive, stabbed, shot or beaten to death.
In a bid to tamp down the violence, South Africa put soldiers on the streets of its commercial hub Thursday — the first time since the end of apartheid that the military has been deployed in Johannesburg.
The milestone has dredged up unhappy memories of South Africa's racist legacy. Speaking to reporters Thursday, police minister Charles Nqakula recalled the era when the white government used troops to quell anti-apartheid protests.
"One of the cries during that time was that we did not want the army in our townships," he said, adding its role now would be limited to supporting police.
Before dawn, infantry battalion soldiers set up a cordon as police made early morning swoops on three downtown Johannesburg hostels whose residents allegedly were involved in inciting violence.
The police made 28 arrests and seized drugs, firearms and stolen property, police spokeswoman Sally de Beer said.
The violence has started to subside, but foreigners in South Africa remain wary.
The number sheltering at police stations, churches and other makeshift camps for those displaced by the violence has swelled to 25,000, and officials were setting up tent cities for them, a sign the crisis was not expected to ease soon.
Two burned bodies were found Thursday in the Ramaphosa slum outside Johannesburg where mobs set shacks on fire. Incidents of anti-immigrant violence also were reported elsewhere in the country.
Dzidzah Masiiwa, a Zimbabwean painter, said he spent three nights in the relative sanctuary of the police station in the township of Alexandra, where the violence began. He reluctantly returned to his shack Wednesday but said he didn't feel safe.
"It's scary. I think maybe they will come back to attack me," he said after a brief visit to the police station to see Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Going home is not a viable alternative for many Zimbabweans, who number about 3 million in South Africa.
Acts of violence
Zimbabwe's economy has collapsed, with inflation so high staples are out of reach for many. And its longtime leader, Robert Mugabe, is accused of using violence and intimidation to hold onto power.
South Africa, in contrast, has one of the strongest economies in the region and a stable democracy, making the images of hatred and black-on-black violence — splashed on front pages worldwide — all the more shocking.
While South Africa is doing better than its neighbors, many link the violence against foreigners to impatience among the poorest of the poor, who have feel left behind as a minority of blacks take advantage of opportunities created since the end of apartheid.
Essop Pahad, a top aide to President Thabo Mbeki, rejected accusations the violence was the result of his government's failures.
"There's no way you can justify an act of violence on other people except to define it as criminal," he said.
Hidden force at work?
Other government and governing party officials have hinted they believe a hidden force was orchestrating the violence, perhaps to undermine general elections next year. The unrest has deeply embarrassed the government, whose own leaders sought refuge in neighboring countries during the white racist rule of the past.
And it has had a profound effect on an economy reliant on foreign workers.
Gold company DRD Gold said production in one of its big mines just outside Johannesburg has suffered since the attacks began.
Spokesman James Duncan said foreigners comprise 33 percent of the semiskilled work force at the ERPM operation in Primrose in the East Rand, where some of the worst violence occurred over the weekend. He said 14 percent of workers failed to show up Monday — and the absentee rate was up to 60 percent by Wednesday. On Thursday, 58 percent of the day shift did not turn up.
Two of the mine's employees died in the violence, the company said, appealing to workers who had sought refuge at police stations and elsewhere to come forward for assistance. Company officials said they were speaking with union officials, workers and the Mozambique consulate to try to resolve the crisis.
Jerry Vilakazi, head of a business and industry group, said construction and hospitality were also badly affected by the violence. The timing was particularly bad, he said, because the government is in a rush to complete projects in time for the soccer World Cup, which South Africa will host in 2010.
Zimbabwe opposition leader Tsvangirai, meanwhile, toured some of the worst-affected areas to offer solace to his compatriots.
Tsvangirai was greeted with cheers as he said he would return home Saturday, despite fears of a possible assassination attempt.