Former president Thabo Mbeki has denied South Africans are xenophobic and said some of the violence in Pretoria was more about internal ANC politics than hatred of foreigners.
Mbeki was speaking at the 14th African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) conference at Montecasino in Fourways which was attended by ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, academics, NGOs and the media.
“There isn’t a population of South Africans who attack other Africans simply because of their nationality,” stated Mbeki to loud applause from some audience members.
He said to label those attacks as xenophobic was simplistic and failed to understand the underlying issues such as township thuggery, poverty, commercial competition, internal politics and foreign elements which are involved in crime.
“South Africans have a long history of coexistence with other Africans. Mozambicans and Malawians have been coming to South Africa since the 19th century.
“In Alexandra township, there is a committee to protect foreigners. There is a population of 45 000 Ethiopians in Johannesburg who have never been attacked.
“Why are so many foreigners not attacked?
“Some foreign elements are involved in crime such as prostitution and drug dealing and when the police fail to take necessary action, the community sometimes takes matters into its own hands,” he said.
“There is also commercial competition. When the businesses of Somalians do better than their local competitors, sometimes the latter attack the Somalis and blame them for taking away their jobs.”
Mbeki added that some of the violence in Pretoria concerned internal ANC politics.
The inaugural chairperson of the AU also accused the media of mislabelling crime as xenophobia, pointing to an incident several years ago when a Mozambican was stabbed to death by three township thugs after they refused to pay for cigarettes they bought from his store and he physically challenged them. “I doubt they even knew he was Mozambican,” Mbeki said.
However, Emmanuel Mwamba, Zambia’s High Commissioner to South Africa, responded angrily, accusing Mbeki of being in denial and making excuses for unacceptable behaviour and violence against foreigners.
He, too, was loudly applauded by some sections of the audience.
“It doesn’t help labelling Nigerian drug dealers, for example, as this builds prejudice against Nigerians instead of focusing on the fight against crime,” said Mwamba.
Following the verbal exchange, Mbeki offered to hold a meeting with African ambassadors to discuss the problem.
“I’m excited that the former president has agreed to hold the meeting and take up our concerns on this very serious issue. I’m also pleased that the minister of home affairs is getting involved,” Mwamba told ANA.
“The structure and history of South Africa’s economy demonstrates that poverty and inequality have to be resolved before blaming foreigners.”