PRETORIA — Other African governments were responsible for the influx of foreign nationals into South Africa and their criticism of the government over the recent wave of deadly xenophobic unrest was misplaced, President Jacob Zuma said yesterday.
“Our brother countries contribute to this. Why are their citizens not in their countries? It is not useful to criticise South Africa as if we mushroom these foreign nationals and then ill-treat them. Some (immigrants) said if you raise your voice in country X you disappear,” Zuma told a Freedom Day rally at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
“Everybody criticises South Africa as if we have manufactured the problem. Even if people who are xenophobic are a minority, but what prompts these refugees to be in South Africa? It’s a matter we cannot shy away from discussing.”
His remarks follow Nigeria’s decision to recall its top diplomats from South Africa.
Zuma reiterated his condemnation of the attacks that have claimed at least seven lives and said the hardship many South Africans endure was no excuse for turning on fellow Africans. He added government had noted locals’ complaints about their living conditions, including unhappiness with the rising number of immigrants in South Africa.
He said locals complained that immigrants were taking their jobs as some employers now prefer foreigners whom they pay lower wages.
“They are also complaints that foreign nationals benefit from free government services and that they run businesses illegally. There is also an accusation that undocumented foreign nationals commit crime in the country,” said Zuma to applause from his audience.
“None of these justify attacks on foreign nationals and the looting of their shops. We condemn the violence strongly. It is important to emphasise that not all foreign nationals are in the country illegally.”
Zuma noted that reports that Emmanuel Sithole, the Mozambican national who was brutally beaten and stabbed to death in Alexandra, had entered the country illegally. However, he said many immigrants legally entered South Africa and were significantly contributing to the vast economy.
“It is also not true that all foreign nationals are involved in criminal activities. There are some who are involved, but not all of them.”
He said an inter-ministerial committee was examining all the complaints raised during the xenophobic attacks and also to ensure that immigrants observe the host nation’s laws.
“Government has already announced measures to improve security at the border posts including deploying the army in seven provinces recently to patrol border posts. We cannot leave our borders open and hope that either angels and ancestors are guarding our borders. They will never.”
He said soldiers would be deployed as immigration officers to improve the home affairs department’s capacity to man the ports of entry.
Zuma said South Africa was preparing a formal report for the Southern Africa Development Community, the African Union and the United Nations on the migration trends into South Africa and the resultant effects.
He added that representatives of immigrant communities had recently told officials of the deprivation which prompted them to come to South Africa.
“Some of them warned us that there is, with almost certainty, another wave of refugees coming, given the developments in their own countries. They answered the question why they jumped all the countries to come to South Africa.
“They take the trouble to jump all the countries and come to South Africa. They explained why. That will be contained in my report,” said Zuma.
When the crowd called for the president to divulge the stated reason, he responded: “I don’t think we need to appear as being critical to other governments. They all said wherever they are, they know South Africa is a safer country.”
He said the AU must discuss the influx of immigrants into South Africa because fellow African states were contributing to the problem, and all countries had a responsibility to handle their own citizens “with care”.
“We are very happy because we hear there are some murmurs that this matter must be discussed in the AU. We are happy to be given an opportunity to deal with the matter in South Africa and other countries that leads to this situation,” said Zuma.
He said there is a lot of anger in South Africa coupled with a propensity to use violence.
“This results from years of apartheid dehumanisation. We need to do more to promote healing and tolerance amongst all our people. Linked to this is the need to continue efforts to fight racism which continues to be a challenge in our country.”
A diplomatic row is deepening between Nigeria and South Africa after the former recalled its acting high commissioner from Pretoria.
At least seven people were killed in xenophobic attacks experienced in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. Hundreds of Africans have been repatriated to their countries while thousands more are believed to be returning independently to neighbouring countries.
Zuma hosted a five-hour meeting with representatives of immigrant organisations at his Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guesthouse in Pretoria on Friday.