Johannesburg - Amid growing security threats in the Middle East, which analysts fear will soon result in bloody direct combat, the government has announced that it is ready to evacuate South African nationals who wish to get out of Iraq.
The readiness was announced by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) after the US killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Major-General Qasem Soleimani on Friday in Baghdad.
The cold-blooded killing has stirred political tensions, with some Middle East news outlets such as Al Jazeera reporting on Sunday that Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had warned “a harsh retaliation is waiting”.
Iran’s state-owned international news channel Press TV reported that hundreds of thousands of people attended the Soleimani’s funeral chanting “Death to America’’ and “Death to Israel”.
There were also reports that armed groups sympathetic to Iran had vowed to fight back, going as far as ordering Iraqi forces to move away from US army bases so that they are not caught up in the crossfire when they strike US bases, which were established in the region in 2003 when America invaded the oil-rich country to topple Saddam Hussein.
The news that Dirco was ready to evacuate South Africans from the region was first made public by department spokesperson Nelson Kgwete in a Facebook post.
In the post, Kgwete said: “Public service announcement: South African citizens caught up in the situation in Iraq and needing assistance must contact Dirco on 0123511000. They will be placed in contact with our embassy in Amman, Jordan. South Africa does not have a diplomatic mission in Iraq and we are accredited to that country through Jordan.”
Giving more details, International Relations and Co-operation Minister Naledi Pandor’s spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele said the exact number of South Africans in Iraq was unknown but maintained that the department would release the figures as soon as they were verified.
Ngqengelele added that South Africa has embassies in 125 countries across the world and part of their responsibilities was to assist South Africans in distress while outside their home country.
“The kind of assistance our offices render vary from one situation to another, including on individual persons. It would be difficult to be specific in terms of time frames. The obligation is on individuals to inform us when they travel abroad.
“Unfortunately not everyone informs us. It isn’t Dirco’s responsibility to keep track of the number of people travelling abroad. Home Affairs does through emigration,” he said.
While there is no official database of South Africans in Iraq and the work that they do, media reports between 2003 and now showed that citizens were in the country working as building contractors and security personnel alongside US and Nato forces.
In recent years, some had been repatriated after being killed by militia groups in the country.
It was not yet clear what plans the country has for South Africans living in Iran should war erupt there.
This was as it appeared that should the tensions between the US and Iran would escalate to direct combat, they would be affected.
On Sunday, US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to announce that should Iran attack US interests, the US would hit back by attacking 52 sites that they have already identified as critical to the Islamic Republic.
In Iran, the biggest employer of South Africans is MTN Irancell, which is owned by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed group, MTN Group, a South African conglomerate with operations in volatile Afghanistan.