Blantyre – There was an eerie atmosphere in Malawi’s major cities as South African-owned chain stores closed and tightened security amid calls by consumer rights groups for a boycott on what some people dubbed “Black Friday”.

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Shops like Pep Stores, Shoprite and Game remained closed in the commercial capital, Blantyre, the eastern city of Zomba, the capital, Lilongwe, and the northern city of Mzuzu.

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Heavily armed police officers patrolled car parks, frisking anyone who wanted to enter the stores.

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“We have Pep Stores and Shoprite here in Mzuzu – they are both closed and armed police are all over,” journalist Winnie Botha said from the northern city.

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In Blantyre, the largest commercial city, heavily armed police officers in armoured vehicles were stationed on strategic corners of the Chichiri Shopping Mall where Game, Shoprite and Pep Stores are located.

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“We were asked to wear our uniforms and report for duty, but the bosses said we’re not opening,” said Bridget, a shop attendant at Shoprite.

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Consumer rights activist John Kapito, executive director of the Consumers Association of Malawi, said in Lilongwe that all Game, Shoprite and Pep Stores outlets were closed.

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“We want to send a symbolic message to South Africa that there must be a symbiotic relationship among countries in Africa.

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“South Africans cannot chase us from their country and expect us to help them grow their economy by patronising their shops and goods.”

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Kapito said there would be no demonstrations, to prevent rogue elements hijacking such events and looting shops.

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The government has become embroiled in a row with transport operators about its decision to hire South African buses to bring Malawians stranded by the violence home from South Africa. Malawian bus owner Mike Mlombwa said it did not make sense to hire South African buses.

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“These people do not want us in their country and yet we are giving them business. It doesn’t make sense. We could have done the job,” said Mlombwa, who also heads the Indigenous Business Association of Malawi.

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But Information Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa defended the government’s decision to hire South African buses.

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“Looking at the urgency of the situation, it could have taken a lot of time for Malawian buses to reach South Africa. Besides, the South African buses were cheaper,” he said.

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Nankhumwa said that while Malawian transport operators quoted 8.1 million Malawi kwacha (about R218 000), South African operators charged the government 3.1 million kwacha.

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South African High Commissioner to Malawi Cassandra Mbuyane-Mokone, who was petitioned by a civil society group on Tuesday, has condemned the xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

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“We would like to strongly state our condemnation of the attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa,” she said in a statement she read to the media in Lilongwe yesterday.

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“We would like to state that most South Africans are not xenophobic.”

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The first group of 390 Malawians fleeing the xenophobic attacks arrived in Malawi on Monday night in six buses.

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A further 509 left Durban on Tuesday in eight buses. They were expected in Malawi yesterday.

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“When the buses reached Beitbridge (the South African-Zimbabwean border post) they found 23 Malawians without passports whom someone had picked up in Germiston on the East Rand and dumped there,” said Nankhumwa.

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“These, too, were squeezed into the eight buses, taking the number of passengers to 532.”

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Many young Malawians trek to South Africa each year in search of work.