"Never again." This was the resounding message that President Thabo Mbeki and other dignitaries sent to South Africans and foreign nationals at the remembrance of victims of xenophobic attacks at the Pretoria City Hall on Thursday.

Mbeki lamented how South Africans, whom he defended as non-xenophobic, lost unity and solidarity during the "dark" days of May when 62 people, including 20 South Africans, were killed in such attacks.

Speaking in front of hundreds of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe including ambassadors, ministers, religious leaders and MPs, Mbeki pledged that the South African government would do everything necessary to ensure that refugees and South Africans live side-by-side again.

Referring to the more than 40 000 foreigners who were "quarantined" in the wake of the attacks, Mbeki said government would work "expeditiously" to ensure that the 9 000 displaced refugees who had not been reintegrated back to their communities are returned to their homes.

"We will do everything necessary to assist victims of the criminal onslaught, both the South Africans and our foreign guests, to resume their normal lives. We will act without any unnecessary delay to address all genuine concerns which may give birth to tensions between the natives and immigrant Africans," said Mbeki.

He said those who had been arrested in connection with the "murderous criminal activities" would face the full might of the law.

Mbeki said government would ensure that all communities "defeat the evil elements in our midst who target vulnerable African migrants, subjecting them to violent attacks for criminal purposes and personal gain".

Mbeki said he was amazed to have "heard it said insistently that my people have turned or have become xenophobic".

Defending "his" people Mbeki said: "I will not hesitate to assert that my people are not diseased by the terrible affliction of xenophobia which has, in the past, led to the commission of the heinous crime of genocide".

He said he was aggrieved, however, to have "gathered here today with heads bowed in shame, because of the immense pain and fear about the future that some among us deliberately inflicted on fellow Africans in our country".

He lambasted South Africans for ignoring the teachings of Pixely Seme, JG Xaba and Tiyo Soga, who were champions of African unity and solidarity.

Mbeki called on South Africans to welcome all visitors and travellers with compassion and friendship.

In spite of the erosion of human instinct towards solidarity due to colonialism and apartheid, said Mbeki, South Africans still believe in the spirit of "ubuntu".

However, South Africans have their "heads bowed in shame, because some in our communities acted in ways that communicated the message that the values of ubuntu are dead, and that they lie entombed in the graves of the cadavers of people who died ostensibly solely because they came among us as travellers in search of refuge".

Mbeki said the attacks were not inspired by nationalism or extreme chauvinism, but the violence was aimed at immigrants with property and shops to loot.

"Never again will we allow anybody to bring shame to our nation by betraying the values of ubuntu and committing crimes against our visitors and travellers."

Mbeki expressed concern at the challenges faced by government in managing "unfulfilled expectations", while acknowledging that creating a better life for all would take a long time.

He pleaded with South Africans not to allow themselves to become victims of the "perversion" of xenophobia which has led to genocide in many countries.

Mbeki shook hands with the foreign nationals at the end of his tribute.

Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula reminded the South African public of the values and principles which were the basis of the constitution and Bill of Rights.

Nqakula said the worst affected provinces, where most people were displaced, were the Western Cape (20 000), Gauteng (19 353) and Mpumalanga (1 522). He said it was difficult to determine the number of people who fled the country during the attacks which "scandalised" South Africans.

Among the dead, 25 were undocumented people - who could possibly have been illegal immigrants - and have not been identified.

Nqakula said the 1 433 arrested in connection with the xenophobic attacks had been charged with murder, attempted murder, arson, robbery and other serious and violent crimes.

Thabiso Morope of Thokoza spoke and called on the youth to unite against xenophobia.