/ 25 May 2008

Absent Mbeki criticised over violence

South African President Thabo Mbeki, already under fire for perceived policy failings that caused an anti-immigrant backlash in his country, now faces questions about his handling of the crisis.

The head of state is yet to visit the worst affected areas of Johannesburg after two weeks of violence against foreigners that has left more than 50 dead and more than 25 000 displaced.

His pronouncements have been limited to a statement given to newspapers more than a week after trouble began, a promise to create an investigating committee, and a brief comment carried by state radio South African Broadcasting Corporation on Saturday in which he talked of “the humiliating disgrace” of the episode.

Despite spreading violence, which began in Johannesburg two weeks ago but has now hit seven of the country’s nine provinces, he has not made a public address on the radio or television to appeal for calm.

“A strong appeal to the South African people from the president would be very welcome indeed,” says Olmo Von Meijenfeldt, an analyst from the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.

The latest incident underlines his distant style of leadership, he adds.

“He is not a man … to put himself at the forefront,” Von Meijenfeld says.

“Due to his style of leadership and his personality, he is someone who is a bit far away from the day-to-day life of these communities.”

By contrast, his rival in the African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, who defeated him to become head of the party in December, has been more vocal and is to visit victims on Sunday.

The issue of the violence is not just a personal embarrassment to Mbeki, who has long championed the pan-African cause. Unheeded warnings of a looming problem are coming back to haunt the government as a whole.

Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils has admitted that the government knew tensions were growing.

“Of course we were aware there was something brewing. It is one thing to know there is a social problem and another thing to know when that outburst will occur,” he said.

Outbreaks of anti-immigrant attacks have been reported since the late 1990s and the South African Human Rights Commission had warned in 2007: “Xenophobia is definitely increasing.”

Again, in March of this year, the commission issued a statement reiterating “its concern about the scourge of xenophobic violent attacks and brutal murders of foreign nationals.”

It urged the government to pass a hate crimes law.

It is a poor reflection on Mbeki that both Von Meijenfeldt and Moetlesi Mbeki, of the South African Institute of International Affairs, believe a public appeal by the president would have limited impact.

Moetlesi Mbeki is the president’s own brother, but an outspoken critic nonetheless.

“The current government has lost its credibility,” he said.

“Even a strong statement by somebody who has such weak authority will not convince the people.”

The underlying reason for the brutal outbreak of violence, which has seen gangs of armed youths purging poor slum areas of their foreign inhabitants, is a failed immigration and foreign policy, he says.

“This crisis is the result of the failure of their foreign policy against Zimbabwe and they don’t want to admit that,” says Moetlesi Mbeki.

He believes Mbeki’s failure to tackle Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has presided over the collapse of his country’s economy, is of paramount importance in the current context.

Between one and three million Zimbabweans are estimated to have fled their homeland to find work in South Africa and they now stand accused by locals of stealing jobs and committing crime.

“The solution has always been to take a strong position against Mugabe,” says Moetlesi.

The South African president was widely derided for saying there was “no crisis” in Zimbabwe on a visit to capital Harare last month.

In 2007, he said that immigration from the country was “something that we have to live with”.

The result has been an influx of people and a loss of confidence in South Africa’s ability to police its borders and control migration.

South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille wrote on Friday that the ANC should stop casting around for excuses. A “third force,” right-wingers and criminals have been accused of stirring up trouble.

“It [the ANC] cannot face the fact that the state’s failure to stem the tide of illegal immigration and the almost total incapacity to process the wave of refugee applications was the short-term catalyst for the violence,” she said.

“The ANC elite will never face the fact that poverty stricken South Africans bear the brunt for government’s policy failures,” she wrote in her weekly online letter. – AFP