South Africa's influential Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini described recent anti-immigrant attacks as "vile" on Monday, defending himself against claims previous comments he made about foreigners sparked the unrest.
At least seven people have been killed in the latest wave of anti-immigrant violence to hit South Africa, which began almost three weeks ago in Durban, a coastal city in the Zulu heartland.
TV stations across the country have broadcast scenes of angry mobs armed with machetes looting immigrant-owned shops, in the worst xenophobic violence since at least 67 people were killed in 2008.
Police said on Monday its officers had arrested three people linked to the killing on Saturday of Mozambican man Emmanuel Sithole. Disturbing pictures of men beating and stabbing Sithole in broad daylight were published in the Sunday Times, fuelling calls for the police to do more to protect immigrants.
"We need to make sure no more foreigners are attacked. We must stop these vile acts," Zwelithini told thousands of supporters at a stadium in Durban, during a speech the popular leader hoped would restore calm among his followers.
Zulus are the largest ethnic group in South Africa with around 9 million first-language Zulu speakers out of a population of around 50 million.
Some hostile sections of the crowd were singing songs calling for immigrants to leave and booed an earlier speaker who said foreigners had a right to live in South Africa.
"The government can't allow these people to come here and take all the jobs," unemployed Manga Zulu, 38, told Reuters from inside the stadium.
Zwelithini has been accused of lighting the touch paper on the latest wave of anti-immigrant unrest during a speech he made on March 20 in Pongola in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal.
"Let us pop our head lice. We must remove ticks and place them outside in the sun. We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and be sent back," Zwelithini told a cheering crowd.
Many Africans said on social media that describing immigrants as "lice" echoed calls during the 1994 Rwandan genocide for Tutsis to be exterminated like "cockroaches".
But Zwelithini's comments resonated with many impoverished South Africans who say foreigners have taken advantage of lax immigration rules to flood the country and "steal" jobs.
Zwelithini, a key ally of President Jacob Zuma, who has condemned the attacks but not criticised Zwelithini, told supporters in Durban his comments were taken out of context.
"The country has only been shown a portion of my speech, which has been selective," he said. "If it were true that I said 'foreigners must go' this country would be up in flames."
According to census data, South Africa has an estimated 1.7 million foreigners living within its borders, though many claim the figure to be much higher.
African governments, including Zimbabwe and Malawi, repatriated hundreds of their citizens from South Africa last week due to fears of further xenophobic attacks.
There are also fears of reprisals against South Africans working in other countries. Irish mining firm Kenmare Resources and Sasol both pulled out South African workers from Mozambique in recent days.