/ 23 May 2008

SA’s stature battered by migrant killings

South Africa’s aspirations to lead the continent are being shredded by the xenophobic mobs who have hacked, shot and beaten to death at least 42 African migrants in the land where apartheid was defeated.

The killing of Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Nigerians and other Africans by machete-wielding gangs of South Africans has been greeted with horror and outrage in states which once welcomed South African fugitives from racial persecution.

From Maputo to Lusaka to Luanda and further north, African populations that gave refuge to the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) are shocked to see their own people being slain and brutalised in ANC-ruled South Africa.

”If South Africa could remember what we did for them during the apartheid regime, they shouldn’t be doing that to us,” said Emmanuel Efuk, a resident of Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos.

The mobs accuse the immigrants of depriving South Africans of scarce jobs and fuelling crime.

Governments, civil society groups and commentators say the violence is soiling the image South Africa would like to project as a beacon of racial harmony and a continental peacemaker 14 years after apartheid ended.

”This appalling hunting of foreigners which stains the emblematic land of South Africa must be lived as an unspeakable shame, a slap against the struggle of [anti-apartheid hero and former South African president Nelson] Mandela,” the Senegalese private daily Sud Quotidien said in a commentary this week.

Many see South Africa under President Thabo Mbeki stumbling in its aspirations to represent Africa in world forums, such as the United Nations Security Council, where Pretoria is campaigning for a permanent seat against other contenders like Egypt and Nigeria.

Condemning the ”blind violence” of the attacks, the Dakar-based Pan-African human rights organisation RADDHO said they dealt a heavy blow to Africa’s leadership and image.

”It is difficult to understand how the country which amply enjoyed the support of all African peoples in its fight against apartheid and which hosted the World Conference against Racism and Xenophobia in 2001 can be the place where such events are taking place,” RADDHO said in a strongly-worded statement.

Echoes of apartheid

The group sharply criticised Mbeki’s administration, already being accused of limp leadership in efforts to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans fleeing turmoil at home have borne the brunt of the violence in South Africa.

”The South African government … has been slow to take rigorous and firm measures to prevent the massacre of African migrants,” the Dakar-based rights group said.

Observers said the images of migrants being hunted down and killed — some doused with petrol and set alight — harked back to the violence of the apartheid years, when opponents of South Africa’s white minority government were shot and tortured by police and informers were necklaced with burning tyres.

Others recalled the times when ”Frontline States” such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique, which sheltered the ANC in exile, became the targets of military raids by the white apartheid government. Hundreds of African civilians were killed.

Zimbabwe condemned the anti-migrant attacks in South Africa. ”The government of Zimbabwe urges those responsible for the xenophobic violence to appreciate that we in the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region share a common history, a common culture and common destiny,” the Foreign Ministry said.

One senior Zimbabwean official blamed what he called the ”white and Western-controlled” South African media, saying it had run a campaign blaming other Africans, especially Zimbabweans, for South Africa’s social and economic problems.

Some analysts said the violence raised doubts about South Africa’s suitability to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

”How can they host the world if they can’t live side by side with people who are different from them?” said George Pambason, director of the Cape Town-based Alliance for Refugees.

”This violence shows total ignorance and a society which is very eager to shed blood,” he added.

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency on Friday expressed deep concern about the attacks.

The UN High Commission for Refugees said it remained ”deeply concerned about the xenophobic attacks against foreigners in South Africa, including refugees and asylum seekers who fled to South Africa seeking protection from persecution in their own countries,” the agency’s spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told journalists in Geneva.

She added that reports from the agency’s teams indicate that ”a very large percentage” of those displaced by the violence are Zimbabweans.

”They include people who came to South Africa to seek asylum. They urgently need both assistance and protection,” she said.

She added that Zimbabweans who are refugees ”should be recognised as such”.

The violence, which was earlier concentrated in Johannesburg on Friday, also spread to Cape Town.

Malawi begins evacuation

The Malawian government announced on Friday it had begun helping to evacuate 850 of its citizens.

”More than 850 Malawians have been affected by the current violence. All Malawians willing to return home will be evacuated,” Ben Mbewe, Foreign Affairs principal secretary said in a statement.

He confirmed that a Malawian citizen had been shot dead in Durban and said a task force had been set up to coordinate the evacuation. The first batch of people would be home this weekend.

”The government will do everything possible to ease the plight of affected Malawians,” he said.

Mbewe said hundreds of Malawians had camped at police stations. About 850 Malawians and 3 000 other immigrants were being sheltered in Johannesburg, he said.

Embassy officials were visiting to check if they were any Malawians hospitalised and to offer help.

Malawi’s Foreign Minister Joyce Banda flew to South Africa on Sunday where she was briefed by the country’s embassy officials.

Hundreds of Malawians have flocked to South Africa in recent years seeking employment.

At least 23 Mozambican nationals killed

Mozambique’s Deputy Interior Minister Jose Mandra said on Friday at least 23 Mozambican nationals had been killed.

To cope with the tide of returning migrants, the government of President Armando Guebuza has reactivated the National Operative Emergency Centre (CENOE), which deals primarily with disasters.

Foreign Affairs Minister Oldemiro Baloi said CENOE would deal with the situation in an integrated manner to avoid ”opening wounds that are hard to heal later”.

The returnees are being assessed at the border. Some are directed to temporary accommodation centres for food and medical assistance while others are sent home.

Immigration authorities say that more than 10 000 Mozambicans have returned home from South Africa in recent days.

The Mozambican government has laid on buses to fetch its citizens from makeshift camps for the displaced erected in police stations and civic centres around Johannesburg. – Reuters, AFP, Sapa-DPA