President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday urged South Africans to be tolerant of migrants following recent xenophobic violence, as hundreds of refugees camped outside UN offices demanding to be removed the country, fearing for their safety.
"We are insisting there needs to be more tolerance, there needs to be more understanding," Ramaphosa told the upper house of parliament in Cape Town.
In August and early September, the country saw a wave of xenophobic violence that left 10 South Africans and two migrants dead when mobs descended on foreign-owned stores in and around Johannesburg, destroying properties and looting.
"South Africans are not xenophobic, we are not," he said, describing the recent unrest as having been "driven by criminality".
Ramaphosa said while migration was a challenge, with locals and foreigners competing for limited resources and services, "there should never be any form of prejudice that will be exercised or perpetrated against others."
He answered questions in parliament, a few office blocks away from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices, where up to 300 foreigners staged a sit-in, demanding to be taken out of South Africa saying they were no longer safe.
They vowed not to leave the premises until the UNHCR addressed their concerns.
As Africa's most industrialised nation, South Africa is a magnet for economic migrants searching for better job prospects and asylum seekers looking for safety.
But the migrants gathered outside the UNHCR offices insist the country is no longer safe for them.
In a statement it assured the refugees and asylum seekers that it was "working closely" with South African authorities to continue providing protection through issuing appropriate identity documentation, facilitating access to health care, education and employment opportunities.
South Africa is hosting close to 268,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia, among others according to the UNHCR.
"As South Africans we should be embracing one another and indeed we should also embrace foreign nationals," Ramaphosa added.