As a result of the 2008 xenophobic violence, about 100 000 African nationals were forced to seek refuge in camps set up in Joburg. File picture: Werner Beukes
Will Thabo Mbeki's continued “xenophobia denialism” harm his Pan-African credentials, asks Adekeye Adebajo.

Last month in Joburg, I attended the 14th anniversary of the AU’s African Peer Review Mechanism, a South Africa-based self-monitoring governance mechanism involving 36 African governments, their civil societies, private sector and other key constituencies.

The keynote speaker was former president Thabo Mbeki, who was instrumental in establishing the mechanism in 2003.

During the discussion, Mbeki criticised the Kenyan government for failing to heed the warnings of the APRM report about its forthcoming electoral violence in 2007. Later, asked whether he regretted that his own government had failed to act on the 2007 report about impending xenophobic violence, Mbeki launched into a tirade that effectively amounted to “xenophobia denialism”.

His government had denied the warnings of the report - led by Nigerian economist Adebayo Adedeji - as “simply not true”. Mbeki’s attack was seen by many, at the time, as an act of infanticide by one of the “founding fathers” of the mechanism which had damaged the institution’s credibility.

There was a distinct impression that South Africa - in an act of jingoistic “exceptionalism” - felt the APRM had not been devised for an “industrialised” country like itself but for “lesser” African nations. This is despite the poverty among 70% of South Africa’s population, and its status as one of the world’s most unequal societies.

A year after the 2007 report’s warnings were ignored, 62 foreigners in Gauteng - mostly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi - were killed in xenophobic acts. In one incident in the East Rand, a Mozambican citizen, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, was beaten, stabbed and set alight by a mob and burned to death in front of a watching crowd. No one was charged for his murder, and the case was closed in 2010.

As a result of the 2008 xenophobic violence, about 100 000 African nationals were forced to seek refuge in camps set up in Joburg. 

Xenophobia, of course, is not restricted to South Africa, and there have historically been instances (mostly expulsions) against Africans in Nigeria, Ghana, South Sudan, Botswana, Angola and Zambia. Returning to last month’s APRM meeting, Mbeki warned: “To attach this label ‘xenophobic’, results in many instances of us not understanding what is the source of this issue.” He rightly noted that one needs to examine the root causes such as “township thuggery”, poverty, more efficient foreign traders, and police unresponsiveness to crime.

But there is no contradiction between simultaneously calling attacks “xenophobic” and “criminal”, which is the false choice Mbeki and many South African leaders continue to insist on. The attacks against gays and lesbians - including “corrective rape” - are examples of homophobia and criminality. One can recognise and condemn both at the same time.

Mbeki further noted during the discussion that “South Africans have a long history of co-existence with other Africans”. But a long history of co-existence was also present in the eastern Congo and Ivory Coast before irresponsible politicians fanned the flames of ethnicity, leading to conflict.

Flying in the face of all evidence, Mbeki then went on to note: “There isn’t a population of South Africans who attack other Africans simply because of their nationality.”

It would be difficult to explain this to Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians killed in xenophobic violence, or to Nigerians, Somalis, and Ethiopians whose shops and homes have been burnt and looted and their nationals killed in attacks by scores of ordinary South Africans. These resulted in about 350 deaths between 2008 and 2015.

Mbeki’s comment that the failure of the police to deal with crime involving African migrants forces communities to take the law into their own hands is hardly a justification. His statement that South African business people in local communities are simply “trying to protect (their) market” is both insensitive and irresponsible.

He then asked: “Why are so many foreigners not attacked?” This clumsy and curious formulation should surely be reversed to ask why so many African nationals are actually attacked. 

Mbeki went on to argue that this situation could not constitute xenophobia, since the 45 000 Ethiopians in Joburg as well as Nigerian professionals had never been attacked. This strange statement simply represents a case of sophistry. Aside from the fact that Ethiopian shops were attacked in Joburg in 2008 and Ethiopian traders were killed in attacks in Durban in 2015, many Nigerian professionals like myself can point to several cases of xenophobic sentiments and stereotyping, including by several South African academics. 

After Mbeki spoke at the APRM meeting, the Zambian high commissioner to South Africa, Emmanuel Mwamba, offered a stinging rebuke to the former president’s “xenophobia denialism”. He started by observing that Mbeki had lived in Lusaka during his exile and that Zambian leaders had not spoken in the way that he had just spoken.

The ambassador went on to reject Mbeki’s denials and justifications as effectively condoning unacceptable behaviour, arguing that xenophobia and Afrophobia needed to be strongly condemned.

He highlighted the venal brutality visited on African nationals and their frequent harassment by the South African police; observed that foreign nationals in schools were now required to produce permits; and noted that rather than Mbeki focusing on petty Nigerian drug-dealers, he should instead assess the more complex structural supply-chain of drug-trafficking which involves nationals from European countries. “It doesn’t help labelling Nigerian drug-dealers as this builds prejudice against Nigerians instead of focusing on the fight against crime.”

Nigerian scholar-diplomat, Ibrahim Gambari, a new member of the eminent panel of the APRM and Mbeki’s fellow panellist, also noted the widespread involvement of South African nationals in crime, and called for a more effective response by the SAPS in protecting foreign nationals.

Mbeki responded to Mwamba’s angry riposte by calling for a meeting with the African diplomatic corps in South Africa, noting sarcastically that “maybe they could teach me something I don’t know about my own people”.

The biggest damage to Mbeki’s presidential legacy was undoubtedly what his critics dubbed his “Aids denialism”. In contrast, as president, one of Mbeki’s greatest legacies was his pan-African promotion of peacemaking in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, as well as his building of AU institutions such as the Commission, the APRM, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), and the Pan-African Parliament.

Will this legacy now be imperilled with these remarks? What was particularly frightening about this incident was the thought that if one of the most Pan-African leaders that South Africa has ever produced could express such jaundiced views, what do other South African leaders really think about the issue of xenophobia? Will “xenophobia denialism” harm Mbeki’s Pan-African credentials in a similar way that “Aids denialism” has damaged his legacy?

* Professor Adebajo is the director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg, and author of Thabo Mbeki: Africa’s Philosopher-King (Jacana, 2016).

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent