'We need to do more to combat xenophobia'

The government admits it hasn't done enough to fight xenophobia - but says its commitment to rid the country of the scourge can't be questioned.

Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula made this declaration on Thursday on the final day of a hearing into xenophobia hosted by the Human Rights Commission and parliament's portfolio committee on foreign affairs.

"I was a refugee. I was discriminated against. I have experience of what it is like to be a foreigner," Mapisa-Nqakula said.

As an African National Congress activist, she fled South Africa in 1984 and sought refuge in Zambia.

"When there were food shortages, there were some people who would blame us, the foreigners, for not having enough food.

"When I moved to Angola, there was war, death everywhere, but the community helped us," Mapisa-Nqakula said.

"South Africans dare not turn their back on people from other nations. It's payback time. I have a lot of sympathy for asylum-seekers, but they must get permits."

But the kind of "payback" the hearing had been told of by foreigners was not quite the "payback" the minister had in mind.

Officials within her department, the Lindela Deportation Centre and the police took flak this week for allegedly trampling on the rights of foreigners.

Mapisa-Nqakula arrived at the hearing to set the record straight on the perception that the government was inherently xenophobic.

"We recognise that xenophobia is a serious human rights issue, that it's rife in our country and it needs to be condemned and combated," she said.

"We are extremely concerned that, 10 years into our democracy, there are some who hate others merely because they came from a different country."

She said reports of people being harassed, brutally treated and at times killed had reached disturbing proportions.

"We need to find a solution that combines a number of initiatives, including legislation, education programmes and partnerships to deal with this scourge."

She said an official had been appointed to set up a counter-xenophobia unit. "I'm the first to acknowledge that this should have happened much sooner.

"We believe that we need to do more to protect the refugee community in our country, including speeding up the status- determination process and providing training to agencies who enforce immigration laws."

Mapisa-Nqakula said that during her unannounced visit to Lindela, she had come across a Mozambican who had suffered a stroke.

"My reaction is: why would the police arrest an illegal immigrant who is lying in bed, dying?

"My immediate instruction was that he should be taken to hospital and then go home so that he can be surrounded by love."

She had also ordered all unaccompanied children to be removed from Lindela and for the Department of Social Services to take responsibility for them.

A report of the hearing will be prepared and handed to parliament.

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