PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe and his South African counterpart President Jacob Zuma completely ignored renewed xenophobia attacks on foreigners, including Zimbabweans, that gripped South Africa ahead of their high-profile meetings this week.
The two heads of state basically white-washed the controversial immigration issue, which has triggered tensions between the two countries. It is estimated that more than three million Zimbabweans live in South Africa.
Instead, Mugabe on Wednesday thanked South Africa for its patience in dealing with the problem of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants in that country, while also expressing gratitude that Africa’s second-largest economy provided them with jobs.
“Naturally, that must be resolved, people moving without passports into South Africa, some jumping our borders thinking there is lots of work in Johannesburg. We must find ways of controlling movement which is not sanctioned,” he said. “I want to say to South Africa, thank you for the hospitality that you have had, you looked after many … and we owe you not just a gesture of thankfulness which we must express; we owe you that thankfulness for the tolerance on the part of the government as our people have really offended your systems.”
Mugabe’s state visit came days after more than 120 foreign nationals were attacked in Isipingo in Durban.
Xenophobic violence reared its ugly head in Durban over the Easter weekend, dubbed “Black Easter” for foreigners with foreign nationals given an ultimatum to leave the country. Fearing for their lives, they had to seek shelter with the police.
Just a month ago, South African police reported the death of a Zimbabwean woman who was lynched and burnt alive by an angry crowd that wrongly accused her of killing an eight-year old boy.
A Zimbabwean man was rescued by the police and managed to escape the same incident with injuries. The pair was accused of killing the boy through witchcraft, but investigations revealed that the young boy had actually been electrocuted. Three people were arrested over the woman’s murder, but only faced charges of public violence.
On Tuesday, a mob of over 500 South Africans threatened Zimbabweans and Mozambicans in Durban who were forced to seek refuge at Sydenham police station, after they were chased by locals from their homes in the New Germany Road informal settlement.
Many of the affected people are said to be families who have been living in Durban for several years
President of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum Gabriel Shumba said yesterday Mugabe as the chairperson of the Sadc and the African Union (AU) should have shown more concern over xenophobic violence.
“As Sadc and AU chairman, Mugabe should have taken the opportunity to address the issue of xenophobia. We believe that these attacks are an urgent matter especially if they are even occurring during his state visit in South Africa,” said Shumba adding, “It is disappointing that Mugabe and Zuma’s governments have failed or demonstrated inability to address attacks which amount to crimes against humanity. We call on all embassies in South Africa to issue statements regarding the treatment of foreigners in that country.”
Commenting on the likelihood of Zimbabweans’ return to their native land, Shumba said: “As long as we continue to have uncertainty regarding the macro-economic situation, Zimbabweans are not likely to bring their skills home.”
A Zimbabwean professional who has lived and worked in South Africa for nearly 10 years said: “South Africa has been the best host for Zimbabweans; there is no other country which has done so much to help and it has benefitted from foreign skills; immigration is a matter South Africa has tried to tackle indirectly via immigration policies with little success.”
South African-based human rights activist Elinor Sisulu was quoted in a South African online agency yesterday commenting on Mugabe and Zuma’s ongoing bilateral talks. She said the two had failed to deal with the xenophobia issue and it was very probable that the issue was not on their agenda.
“They sit on a table and there’s lumps of shit on the table. The shit is xenophobia and its stinking there, but they will look elsewhere to put the blame yet and say kukhona okunukayo (something stinks), open the windows. They don’t deal with the shit. They talk about things which have no relevance to the people,” she said to applause at a press conference on xenophobia in South Africa hosted by the African Diaspora Forum in Johannesburg.
Despite the fear of attacks, Zimbabweans continue to flock to South Africa. Chipo Munyuki (35) was at Roadport bus terminus in Harare on Wednesday morning to board a bus for South Africa with her two children. She said she was going to join her husband who stayed in Pretoria.
“There are reports of xenophobic attacks, but my husband has a stable job in that country as an accountant therefore I see no reason in staying in Zimbabwe hoping things will change when in fact things are getting worse,” she said.
A man travelling to South Africa also at the terminus said he was going there to search for a job as he had no choice.
“I have a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Human Resources Management, but now despair of ever finding a job in this country so I have decided to try my luck in for South Africa,” he said.
The current wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa is believed to have been torched by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s remarks that foreigners must go back home.
Immigration is viewed in contrasting ways in different countries and regions. Immigrants are motivated to leave their native countries for a variety of reasons, including a desire for prosperity or better employment opportunities, family re-unification, political issues especially escaping conflict, natural disasters or simply the wish to change one’s surroundings.
In 2013 the United Nations estimated that there were 231 522 215 immigrants in the world.
For Zimbabwe, most of its people have made the decision to migrate to escape the economic meltdown now in its second decade, rendering most of them economic refugees.
The country is currently going through severe economic hardships with unemployment at over 85% amid quickening company closures and retrenchments, leaving many citizens without much choice but to migrate in search of greener pastures.
The battle against the country’s obdurate economic crisis is not showing any signs of being won.
At least 7 000 employees were retrenched last year and indications are the number could rise this year, thus influencing immigration.
Last month this paper reported that the number of Zimbabweans seeking South African study visas and work permits had trebled as of January this year compared to the same period in 2014. Statistics by the South African embassy show that in January last year, 767 students were granted study visas as compared to this year’s 1 360.