Zuma: South Africans are not generally xenophobic and must promote social cohesion

No amount of frustration or anger can justify attacks on foreign nationals and the looting of their shops, President Jacob Zuma said this afternoon. In his first detailed public response to xenophobic attacks that started in several areas of KwaZulu-Natal last week Zuma said it was the responsibility of all South Africans to promote social cohesion, peaceful co-existence and good relations.

Zuma today called on the country to remain calm in the face of the violence spreading in KwaZulu-Natal and some parts of Gauteng and discouraged South Africans from using social media to fuel the flames of xenophobic attacks. 

Addressing the National Assembly this afternoon, Zuma said the attacks violated all the values that South Africa embodied, especially respect for human life, human rights, human dignity and Ubuntu.

“We appeal for calm, an end to the violence and restraint. Criminal elements should not be allowed to take advantage of the concerns of citizens to sow mayhem and destruction. Any problems or issues of concern to South African citizens must be resolved peacefully and through dialogue.

“The police have been directed to work around the clock to protect both foreign nationals and citizens and to arrest looters and those committing acts of violence,” said Zuma.

Zuma said while government strongly condemned the attacks, it was aware of and sympathetic to some of the concerns raised by South African citizens in relation to socio-economic issues, concerns the president said were receiving attention. 

“These include complaints about illegal and undocumented immigrants in the country, the increase in the number of shops or small businesses that have been taken over by foreign nationals and also perceptions that foreign nationals commit or perpetrate crime. We wish to emphasise that while some foreign nationals have been arrested for various crimes, it is misleading and wrong to label or regard all foreign nationals as being involved in crime in the country,” said Zuma. 

“We reiterate our view that South Africans are generally not xenophobic. If they were, we would not have such a high number of foreign nationals who have been successfully integrated into communities all over our country, in towns, cities and villages.”

Zuma’s address to the National Assembly was delayed for almost an hour as Members of Parliament debated what should take priority for the president’s appearance in the House, with Economic Freedom Fighters MPs calling for Zuma to first answer the question about when is he planning to pay back a portion of the money used to upgrade his private Nkandla home. Zuma was interrupted and the Parliamentary session suspended in August last year when he was asked the same question.

EFF leader Julius Malema and other opposition parties blame the xenophobic attacks on the Zuma-led government. 

Looking directly at Zuma while delivering his speech, Malema said he had taught South Africans that violence was the only way to deal with issues, citing the killing of striking of mineworkers in Marikana as an example.

“You have lost control of the country because you have lost control of your family. Your own son [Edward Zuma] has stood up and said these people must go, and you do not address that. How can you rule over the country when you can’t even rule over your family? Your son is one example of a family member that you can’t whip into submission,” Malema said.

Democratic Alliance Parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane said the country should not stand by while human beings were being tortured and killed.

“I understand the frustration being felt by South Africans, especially unemployed youth, who struggle to access opportunities to improve their lives. Jobs are scarce. Our economy continues to exclude millions of South Africans,” Maimane said. 

“But to focus this anger and frustration on a small group of foreign nationals who have become unfairly vilified and victimised does not address the cause of that frustration. We must not turn xenophobia into a political football. We must not shy away from the root causes of the problem either. The root of this problem lies in our inability to bring about economic growth and decrease the inequality that plagues our nation.”

Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi questioned the government’s slow response to violence when targeted at foreigners and said when the state was quiet, people died.

Calling for what he called “barbaric and inhumane attacks” to stop, United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said the cause of this violence was a country with high levels of poverty, with leaders only interested in lining their pockets.

“This has to come to a stop, if we are to redeem our image and attract investors,” Holomisa said. 

Home Affairs minister Malusi Gigaba condemned the attacks and said it must be emphasised that not all South Africans were involved in the savagery. Gigaba said it was wrong to claim that all immigrants were undocumented and illegal in South Africa.

“It is wrong to claim that all immigrants do not pay taxes and are therefore a drain on South Africa.”

Defending Zuma from Malema’s critical speech, Gigaba said the EFF leader was “the best student of the school of nuisance.”

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