Calling the events of the last two weeks “an absolute disgrace”, President Thabo Mbeki has publicly condemned the recent spate of violent attacks on foreigners by South Africans.
Speaking to the nation via a radio and television broadcast on Sunday 25 May – it also being Africa Day or the day when the African Union was formed – Mbeki said the nation should mark the day with their heads bowed.
“Never since the birth of our democracy, have we witnessed such callousness. As part of the reflection that Africa Day requires of all of us, we must acknowledge the events of the past two weeks as an absolute disgrace.”
Attacks on foreigners have gained momentum since they began two weeks ago, starting in Johannesburg and spreading to Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town. Media reports around the world have featured shocking images of violence against foreigners, including cold-blooded acts of murder, brutal assault, looting and destruction of their property.
Attackers are claiming that foreigners provide cheap labour, robbing South Africans of jobs and that they are responsible for crime. But whatever the reasons, says Mbeki, these attacks are unacceptable and senseless. “Whatever concerns exist, including those about housing, jobs and so on, these can and must be addressed in a manner that is consistent with the dignified, humane and caring characteristics that define the majority of our people – not through criminal means. They must be addressed through the structures of our democratic system.”
According to police reports, so far 50 foreigners have been killed, about 35 000 have been displaced and thousands who are here legally, illegally or as asylum seekers are leaving the country. It is believed that about three million foreigners live in South Africa.
The president’s broadcast came amid accusations from political leaders and analysts that Mbeki has not done enough to deal with the attacks. “It was a very good speech but belated,” said analyst Sipho Seepe of the South African Institute of Race Relations on public radio SABC on Monday. “The challenge is not about condemnation it’s about taking steps immediately when there is mayhem in the country.”
Last week Mbeki called in the South African National Defence Force to quell the outbreak of violence in provinces around the country and citizens and various organisations have rallied together to provide shelter and food for those displaced by the attacks. Mbeki added that although these attacks taint the country’s image, not all South Africans should be painted with the same brush.
“Many of our people, black and white, have come out to condemn this barbarity, offering food, shelter and clothing to those affected,” said Mbeki. “We commend and thank all these patriots and appeal to them to continue their good work, to reject and isolate the criminals in our midst and extend a hand of friendship to our foreign guests who are nothing more than our fellow human beings.”
Mbeki said that South Africans should not forget that the county’s democracy was achieved through support from other African countries. “We must never forget that our economy was built by the combined labour of Africans drawn from all countries of our region, many of whom died in our mines together with their fellow South African workers.
“Neither should we forget that many people from other African countries helped to build our liberation movement, while many in our region died because of apartheid aggression as they supported us in the struggle to defeat apartheid.”
Tutu apologises for inhumanity
Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, well known as an outspoken champion of human rights, last week expressed his sorrow over the violence. “I want to apologise, to ask for forgiveness on behalf of our people,” said Tutu. “I am deeply, deeply sorry. I want to apologise that we could be so inhuman. Please, please, I call on our people, don’t let us dehumanise ourselves. We are acting contrary to our best nature. We are acting contrary to those we should be showing gratitude to who helped us become what we are, a free nation.”
Kgalema Motlanthe, Member of Parliament and deputy president of the ruling African National Congress, told local and international journalists and media players at the International Media Forum that the ANC unequivocally condemns such acts.
“It becomes the natural obligation of all South Africans to condemn these barbaric acts and we call on all South Africans to take a stand against such acts and condemn them as hate crimes,” said Mothlante. “They can only take our society backwards … these attacks across our townships are not only an attack on foreigners, but an attack on the values of our civil society. We call on all our leaders to unite to call a halt to these senseless attacks.”