PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe and his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma let down immigrants in South Africa — including millions of Zimbabweans — during their crucial meetings last week when Mugabe visited Pretoria for talks on a wide range of issues including trade and migration.
Latest information from sources who attended the meetings shows that Mugabe and Zuma did not privately discuss the wave of xenophobic violence and killings sweeping across South Africa.
Even though Mugabe, who is chairperson of Sadc and the African Union, arrived in South Africa when the current attacks had just begun, he failed to muster the courage to raise the issue with Zuma so that the leaders could tackle the matter head-on.
Mugabe arrived days after attacks over the Easter weekend on foreign nationals in Isipingo in the port city of Durban dubbed “Black Easter” for foreigners.
Zimbabwean and South African officials who attended the meetings said Mugabe and Zuma found themselves in an awkward position and took the easy way out by avoiding the issue altogether.
“These attacks were all over the media headlines, clearly a large elephant in the room during deliberations between the delegations of the two countries. Even the final communiqué, issued at the end of what seemed to have been a good and cordial state visit, makes no mention of the large elephant,” said an official who attended the meetings.
“One explanation why this issue never came up in the deliberations
is that it was clearly embarrassing to both presidents, albeit for different reasons.”
The officials said for Zuma it would have been embarrassing as leader of one of the supposedly leading democratic countries in Africa to explain such violent attacks on fellow African migrants.
“It is particularly embarrassing if it happens at the time you are hosting another African head of state whose immigrant citizens have been part of the targets for attack,” said a government official.
What also constrained Zuma from raising the issue is the fact the attacks have largely been linked to a statement by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who was quoted saying foreigners must pack their bags and go back to their countries.
In Zulu tradition, the king takes precedence over the national president when he arrives in the kingdom of Kwa-Zulu Natal.
“President Zuma himself belongs to the Zulu national group and Zwelithini is his respected king. One can understand the constraints of tradition that the subject cannot be seen to be opposing the king, let alone in public,” said another senior government official.
However, it was only after Zwelithini’s reluctant, unconvincing attempt to wriggle out of his incitive statement claiming he was misquoted that Zuma found the courage to tackle the issue.
Zuma yesterday condemned the attacks on foreign nationals saying no amount of frustration or anger can justify attacks on them, and the looting of their shops.
Addressing the National Assembly in Cape Town, he said: “We condemn the violence in the strongest possible terms. The attacks violate all the values that South Africa embodies, especially the respect for human life, human rights, human dignity and ubuntu (humanism).
“Our country stands firmly against all intolerances such as racism, xenophobia, homophobia and sexism.”
Zuma said he has assigned the entire Justice, Crime Prevention and Security cluster to work on the issue intensively, joined by the ministers of Social Development, Trade and Industry and Small Business Development.
Senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRC) Dewa Mavhinga said this week the xenophobic attacks present a litmus test for Zuma’s government.
“If unchecked, these xenophobic attacks could soon engulf Durban and spread to other parts of South Africa,” he warned.
“For a country that projects itself as an African human rights champion, the litmus test will be how the South African government stems this dangerous tide of xenophobia.”
Government sources said what was also embarrassing for South Africa is that southern African countries, whose nationals are being attacked, fought to the hilt to have Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma, who incidentally is the former wife of the president Zuma, voted as AU chairperson.
Incidentally, the xenophobic attacks are flaring ahead of Africa Day, May 25.
The sources also said it was equally difficult for Mugabe to raise the xenophobia matter for discussion as a guest in South Africa when the country is accommodating an estimated three million Zimbabweans who ran away from his disastrous policies and leadership.
As a result, the leaders glossed over the issue of illegal immigrants, instead of xenophobia.
At a joint press conference on April 8, Mugabe 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.
Mugabe apologised to his host and the South African government for the many Zimbabweans who do not respect the laws of South Africa — those who cross the borders illegally and disturb what he called the “South African social systems”.
“President Mugabe arrived on a state visit to South Africa when these headlines: Corrie Sanders killers get 30 years (they were three Zimbabwe nationals); How mall robbers were taken down (mostly Zimbabwe nationals); and Two SABC robbers won’t apply for bail (both Zimbabweans) were still fresh in the mind of his host as well as the South African public,” said another insider.
“These are some of the headline stories that unfortunately help to add to the resentment against foreigners. This is what President Mugabe might have had in mind when he apologised to his host.”
Xenophobic attacks have since claimed several lives of foreigners and displaced thousands more across South Africa. Unconfirmed reports claim that two Zimbabweans have been killed in the attacks so far.
Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba was not reachable when contacted for comment.
The African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe told the media this week that he believes the solution to xenophobia is the establishment of refugee camps.
Lawyer and Zimbabwe Exiles Forum director Gabriel Shumba said there are growing calls from civil society and human rights groups to push for the arrest of King Zwelithini for his utterances against foreign nationals living in South Africa.
The Zulu king ironically received support from Zuma’s son, Edward, who insisted that all foreigners living in South Africa should be deported.
“If South Africa does not prosecute the Zulu king, then the only alternative is to report him to the International Criminal Court so that he can be prosecuted for crimes against humanity,” Shumba said. “What is worrying is the silence from Sadc as well as the African Union.”