Xenophobia Watch

President Zuma goes on the offensive

President Zuma

After some hesitation the South African government went on the offensive to deal with xenophobia, but the rest of Africa also needs to play ball.

No explanation, no apology, nothing will change the perception that South Africa’s image as a tolerant rainbow nation, is broken. 

With the miracle of 1994, when South Africa peacefully transformed into a full democracy, it was bestowed on the country to show others, particularly in Africa, the way of tolerance, forgiveness and peaceful co-existence.

That privilege is lost now, forfeited.         


Responding to the consequences of the recent xenophobic attacks on foreigners, the analyst Rick Mkhondo wrote, “It is impossible to underestimate quite how much the rest of the African continent is slowly turning against us, slowly turning to dislike our overbearing sense of entitlement, arrogance and whingeing...”

The cost – political, economic and social – is incalculable.

The disapproval from across Africa was severe, with governments not only complaining about the outbreak, but also admonishing the South African government for failing to do enough to protect foreign nationals during the xenophobic attacks.

Although a backlash was expected, the ferocity of it was particularly unsettling.

In several African capitals and major cities locals took to the streets to protest against the xenophobic attacks and the perceived slow and haphazard response of the South African government (SAG). Dismayed with the situation in South Africa, random calls were made for reprisals and for the boycotting of South African business interests. There were even calls for retaliatory attacks on South African nationals.    

While none of the more drastic calls for retaliation realised, anti-South African sentiment ran high in some countries. In Mozambique, oil company Sasol halted work at one of its projects and South African employees were hastily evacuated, fearing retaliation by locals. Incidents of stone throwing aimed at South African vehicles led to the temporarily closure of border posts.

Governments whose citizens took the brunt of the xenophobic attacks put repatriation programs in action, with the Malawian government surprisingly fierce in its criticism, accusing the SAG of ill-treating Malawians.

Even countries whose citizens escaped the attacks, like Botswana, responded by suspending routine patient referrals to South Africa, acting on the advice from the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Unsurprisingly, the fiercest criticism came from Nigeria, from both civil society and the government, which included a request by a Nigerian human rights organisation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to investigate a complaint of hate speech against Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.

Upping the ante after the Nigerian Senate threatened to sue the SAG, the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the South African ambassador to Abuja to express its displeasure, followed it up by recalling its Acting High Commissioner and Deputy High Commissioner to Pretoria for ‘consultation’. 

The South African response was uncompromising, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs describing the recall as “an unfortunate and regrettable step” and saying it “would be curious for a sisterly country to want to exploit such a painful episode”.

The reaction by both governments since the initial stand-off has been to try and paper it over.

Against the backdrop of the competitive relationship between Africa’s two big powers, it is no surprise that Nigeria would try to exploit the tragic events and embarrass its rival to score political points.


It took some time and some nudging, but eventually the Zuma administration, to its credit, and in contrast to the Mbeki administration in 2008, did admit xenophobia was a serious problem.

Also, in contrast to his predecessor, the Zuma administration publically apologised for the attacks on foreigners and President Zuma reportedly dispatched cabinet ministers to various African countries to try and limit the damage, out of the public eye.  

President Zama also went on the offensive.

In his speech to commemorate Freedom Day on 27 April 2015 President Zama hit back, with some justification, challenging his African peers to also take their share of the responsibility for the problem of migration, asking why people from the rest of the continent flee to South Africa?

He offered his own reasons, saying that economic and governance inadequacies on the continent played a significant role in the migrant problem in South Africa, an assessment with which we concur.

In a previous article it was pointed out that the same reasons also force thousands of Africans to seek a new and hopefully better life somewhere in Europe, embarking on perilous voyages across the Mediterranean.

Reaction of SADC and AU

Contrary to expectations little came from the predicted hostile reception President Zuma and the South African delegation were predicted to receive from other members at the last week’s SADC Summit in Harare. The same is likely to happen at the forthcoming AU summit.

President Zuma briefed the SADC members but it was probably his public reprimands that had the desired result.

Surprisingly, President Mugabe, the current SADC chairman, came out in support of President Zuma and called on other African nations to, “stop their citizens from migrating to South Africa ... We, the neighbours, should do whatever we can to prevent more people going to South Africa and try to get those who are in South Africa to get home”.

Mugabe’s own disastrous economic policy and political mismanagement is ironically the main reason for an estimated one million Zimbabweans currently living in South Africa.

Time will tell

The SAG has announced remedial steps to put an end to xenophobia, including an inter-ministerial migration committee; a new migration policy to be announced soon and stricter border controls.

Only time will tell if these and other steps will have the desired effect, but they will have less chance of success if governments elsewhere in Africa fail to also address the issues that in the first place prompt their citizens to migrate to South Africa.

by Garth Cilliers

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