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Ladysmith Black Mambazo to South Africans: Stop Attacking Immigrants

"United we stand, divided we shall fall."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo's latest song, with Malian singer Salif Keita, is a plea for peace in South Africa, which has been grappling with the fallout from deadly violence against immigrants from other parts of Africa.

For this song, the distinctive Zulu Isicathamiya style — an a cappella form of singing — blends with the soaring vocals of Keita, who's known as Mali's golden voice. He's teamed up with the Grammy Award-winning group to deliver one joint message.

"Africa is our home," they sing in Zulu, English and Bambara. "Make it a better place. Peace, love and harmony."

The anti-immigrant violence began in late March in the KwaZulu-Natal province, where the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are from. The attacks come after the influential king of South Africa's Zulu nation reportedly described migrants as lice that needed to be removed. "Let us pop our head lice. We must remove ticks and place them outside in the sun," King Goodwill Zwelithini reportedly said in a charged speech on March 20. "We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and be sent back."

Zwelithini has denied inciting violence, but many South Africans still blame immigrants for the country's poor economy and high unemployment rate. They accuse the outsiders of stealing jobs, homes and even their women.

Seven people — including four foreigners — have been killed. One was a man from Mozambique who was stabbed and beaten in broad daylight in Alexandra township in northern Johannesburg. Foreign-owned shops have been looted and hundreds of immigrants have fled the country. Many of those still in South Africa fear for their lives. Many of them, including children, have sought refuge in a dusty transit camp outside the port city of Durban, which is home to thousands of immigrants — and where the attacks started.

The parents are desperate to return to their jobs, but say they can't lest attackers wielding machetes, clubs and other weapons chase after them.

This was the second sustained outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa in seven years. Almost 70 people were killed in 2008.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has always advocated peace, says Sibongiseni Shabalala, a son of the group's founder. So it came as a shock when deadly attacks against mainly African immigrants erupted in their own province.

"We feel very ashamed especially because we travel all over the world for peace," Shabalala says. "They come as brothers, but now when this happened, it makes us feel very bad that our people can do such things to our African brothers and sisters."

Their song is a reminder that "we are all Africans [and] Africa is for us all," he continues. "That's exactly how we were brought up at home. My father always taught us to be respectful, to live in peace with other people, to love other people."

He says the anger must be controlled: "If there [are] problems, people must sit down and talk. But fighting — killing each other — will never solve the problems."

Shabalala says the atmosphere in the recording studio in Durban, where they recorded the song, should be an example to everyone.

"This is how people should live, together," he tells NPR. "If people can come and see us, sitting with our brothers and sisters from Mali, from South Africa, working on a song of peace, trying to send this message that people should stop and think, before killing each other."

Shabalala hopes that once people hear the song, they will listen to its message. "Music — when you are sad — it calms you. You sing, it heals you," he says. "We are all brothers and sisters."

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Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.