South Africa’s leaders went missing on the foreigner attacks and shamed our history

Absent leadership
Absent leadership
Image: AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed
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At the dawn of South Africa’s transition, Jacob Zuma was widely recognized as a peacemaker.

For more than a decade before the 1994 elections, Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu Natal experienced mass political violence – fueled by the ethnic chauvinism of the Inkhatha Freedom Party (IFP) – aided and betted by the Apartheid government.

On Saturday late afternoon, after canceling his scheduled state visit to Indonesia, Zuma appeared at the temporary relocation camp for foreign nationals in Chatsworth, KwaZulu Natal.

Although he tried to assure the disheartened and agitated crowd that the South African government condemned the events of the past two weeks – he lacked the earnestness he once displayed those many years ago.  Many in the crowd along with many in and outside the country why it had taken Zuma this long to step up and address both the victims and the attackers.

“We don’t want you to leave, but we will help you leave”

Even his speech failed to be unequivocal.

Summed up, his overriding message to the more than 1000 foreign nationals stationed at the temporary relocation camp in Chatsworth was: “We do not want you to leave, but if you want to go, we will help you leave.”

Zuma’s comment comes after several countries – mainly Nigeria, Mozambique, Kenya and Malawi – have called for their citizens to come back home.

For 15 minutes – after recounting how many South Africans were warmly welcomed in other countries, and how the majority of South Africans live peacefully with foreign nationals – Zuma failed to capture the crowd.

In an attempt to demonstrate sympathy, Zuma lifted a cheque of R 50, 000 ($4140) – a donation made to the temporary relocation camp by a local business.

“South Africans are here, they want to alleviate the situation. They’re contributing R 100, 000 ($8280); R 50, 000 here [in Chatsworth] and R 50, 000 in Phoenix. We’re calling all South Africans to help make life better for you”said Zuma.

The crowd responded back with jeers and boos.

[Below is Zuma speaking at the event. He starts out speaking in Zulu and starts speaking in English at 7.51]

Frozen in time, this moment in Zuma’s speech says a lot about how South African society has reacted to the events of the past two weeks. At the start of the widespread xenophobic attacks and violence, denial was commonplace and senior leaders were largely absent and nonplussed, abdicating the role of solving the crisis to the state security apparatus.

A week later, those who added their voice to the condemnation of the xenophobic attacks did so half-heartedly.

The Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, one of the three ministers tasked by President Zuma to restore stability, even went as far as saying that a “singular hidden force” was fuelling xenophobic attacks across the country.

No, it is not the ingrained prejudices of South Africans that has been driving the events of the past week. It is something beyond the realm of our control: “a singular hidden force”.

This abdication of responsibility and apportioning of blame to everyone but ourselves, indicates how even after seven people have been killed and more than 30, 000 people displaced, we, South Africans, still think that this is principally about us.

This is why Zuma was heckled.

The measly donation aside, the foreign nationals at the Chatsworth camp this past weekend were peeved by the idea that South Africans want “to make their lives better for them.” After two weeks of horror, and everyday accounts of prejudice, it really is no surprise they booed.

Many ordinary South Africans are, of course, horrified by the attacks and are disappointed by their leaders. This is why there have also been large anti-xenophobia marches in response in Durban.

Strained relations set to impact business

As South Africa enters the third week of widespread violence and attacks on foreign nationals, its peers on the African continent have come out strongly, lashing out against xenophobic violence.

Speaking to the South African based eNews Channel Africa (eNCA), Tolu Adesanya, an official of the newly elected Nigerian All Progressive Congress (APC), said that a memorandum had been handed over to the South African embassy in Nigeria, urging the South African government to stop the xenophobic violence.

According to numerous reports, if the ongoing violence were not quelled, South African businesses operating in Nigeria – like MTN, Multi Choice and Shoprite – would feel the pinch — it is one of their largest markets. Over the past twenty years, many South African companies have exanded their operations to a number of countries on the continent.

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In Mozambique, South African energy and chemical company, Sasol, has pulled more than 300 of its South African employees from the company’s natural gas processing facility in Temane, Mozambique. This comes after locals protested against the presence of Sasol’s South African employees, while xenophobic attacks continue in South Africa.

Speaking at a cabinet briefing on Friday, Jeff Radebe, a senior ANC leader and Minister in the Presidency said that the xenophobic attacks have far-reaching implications for South Africa – economically and socially.

“South African companies who are running successful businesses on the continent who help to contribute to our revenue and sustaining our economy may suffer the same fate.” Radebe said.