As violence against foreigners spread from Durban to Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg yesterday, President Jacob Zuma admitted that the government's tardy response to socio-economic frustrations might be fuelling the mayhem.''We are aware of the frustrations that people have been voicing and perhaps we as the government have not been very quick in addressing these issues,'' Zuma said in an interview with the SABC last night.
He said the violence and looting - in which at least five people have been killed and hundreds displaced - was "not acceptable".
''I can't accept that when there are challenges we use violence, particularly against our brothers and sisters from the continent . We have said before, when we were in trouble they helped us to fight for our own liberation and did not chase us away, and therefore it's important to bear this in mind.''
Zuma is expected to speak about the crisis in the National Assembly today. Although he appointed three cabinet ministers last week to oversee efforts to restore civil order in KwaZulu-Natal, he has been widely criticised for his silence on xenophobic violence thus far.
He said last night that the government understood the frustrations of ordinary South Africans ''given that there are people living in the country illegally, but also that in terms of the small businesses there are certain developments which have taken place where people coming from outside seem to have taken control of the small businesses. These are issues which need to be discussed among ourselves to find solutions.''
He said there was a need to find a way to avoid friction, to ''avoid people taking their frustrations into their own hands and out on people from outside the country''.
Zuma said the violence was "not necessarily xenophobia". He said South Africans and foreigners had long lived side-by-side amicably.
''This must now stop because we cannot continue killing one another.''
Foreign shops were looted in Johannesburg last night following a day of threats that led traders to barricade their stores.
Hillbrow police said additional officers had been deployed to the area and had quickly dispersed attackers.
Earlier in the day, apprehensive shopkeepers from other African countries, Asia and Europe could be seen loading vehicles with stock as the police patrolled the Johannesburg CBD.
Police, who were in the city centre looking for vendors of counterfeit goods, reacted to SMS warnings about violence against foreigners by stepping up their patrols.
As sporadic incidents of violence broke out, police quickly closed streets and dispersed crowds.
Skirmishes erupted when a South African taxi driver knocked over an Ethopian businessman, Mangisitu Hayle, in what appeared to have been a road rage incident in downtown Joburg. The driver threw stones at and kicked the businessman.
He was chased off by a group of foreigners, who in turn were stoned by South Africans.
Foreigners in the vicinity dismantled their stalls and armed themselves with steel poles.
Several blocks away, in Jeppestown, Pretoria mother Carol Lloyd was stoned as she drove past Wolhuter Men's Hostel.
"I was taking a short cut . when I was stoned," she said.
Scrap-metal dealer Manday Nken, a Nigerian, said looters from the hostel had stolen car batteries and other spare parts from him.
"When they came they said I must leave. They said if I didn't they would burn me alive."
A policeman warned foreigners near the hostel to stay off the streets: "If you are in blocks of flats go to the top floors and lock yourself in. Don't open the door to anyone and don't open your shops for business [today]. It's not safe now and it might not be safe tomorrow."
Johannesburg city officials and police met last night to prepare for attacks today.
In Durban, city officials have only days to bring the violence under control before the Commonwealth Games Federation evaluation commission arrives to inspect the city and assess its potential as host for the Games.
Durban riot police were stretched as mobs again squared off against foreigners. Shops, including those owned by South Africans, were closed.
Panic spread through the city as rumours of imminent violence and Photoshopped pictures circulated on social media.
Parents rushed to schools to fetch their children. Several businesses sent staff home early.
Midlands police spokesman Constable Kenneth Ngobese said 25 people armed with sticks tried to loot Congolese-owned shops in the Pietermaritzburg city centre. There was mayhem in the city centre.
In Shaka's Head, near Ballito, Somali-owned shops were looted.
Foreigners across the province closed their businesses following rumours of attacks.
Since the start of the attacks, 74 people have been arrested on charges of murder, public violence, business robbery, theft and possession of firearms and ammunition.
Three foreigners and two South Africans, including a 14-year-old boy, have been killed.
An additional 800 police officers from other provinces have been deployed to KwaZulu-Natal.
The Malawian government has started to repatriate those of its nationals who want to return home.
Additional reporting by Ulemu Teputepu