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SA extends olive branch to Africa’s diplomats over xenophobic crisis

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Thursday, 12 September 2019 15:26

A Nigerian national prepares to check in for a free flight home from South Africa after xenophobic attacks on foreigners. REUTERS/Stringer

South Africa’s diplomat-in-chief wants to work with the diplomatic corps in her country to come up with solutions to the latest wave of xenophobic violence.

International relations and cooperation minister Naledi Pandor is attempting to build cordial relations on the international stage. She met with several diplomats in Pretoria on Monday, according to her spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele.

Crime and prejudice

None of the officials at the meeting raised concerns about diplomatic ties with South Africa, but they’re worried about crime. The most vocal diplomats are from other African countries, explained Ngqengelele.

“We have to come up with a clear plan and present it. The meeting took place […] to look at solutions and to brief ambassadors about what has been happening,” said Ngqengelele.

Following the meeting, Pandor briefed the media without providing too many details about the talks. She, however, ascribed the xenophobic violence to the country’s apartheid past. The minister reportedly told diplomats during the closed-door meeting that she was “ashamed and embarrassed” by what she’s calling “Afrophobia”, according to online publication, The Daily Maverick.

Defensive diplomacy

For the past month, South Africa has been gripped by xenophobic attacks, characterised by looting and violence directed at African migrants. Much of the violence has been concentrated in downtown Johannesburg.

The outbreak of xenophobic violence coincided with the three-day World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa meeting in Cape Town last week. At the time, erroneous media reports claimed Rwanda, Malawi, and Democratic Republic of the Congo pulled out of WEF due to escalating violence in South Africa.

“Rwanda wrote to us well ahead of WEF Africa to excuse itself. The DRC never confirmed attending. Malawi did not confirm, and, if you look at its record of attendance at international meetings, it is … [poor],” said Ngqengelele.

African responses

Nigeria and Ghana have been the most vocal about condemning the violence. Last week, Zambia’s Football Association called off its friendly match with South Africa.

Botswana became the only African country to issue a cautionary notice to its citizens travelling to South Africa.

There have also been reports of attacks on South African-owned businesses in Nigeria and Zambia.

“We had to shut down the embassies in Lagos and Abuja in response to threats. We had similar threats in Zambia and are monitoring our embassies abroad,” Ngqengelele said.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is scheduled to meet his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, next month to discuss recent events and relations.

Buhari’s government began the arduous task of repatriating around 600 Nigerian nationals from South Africa yesterday. They were ferried by bus from Pretoria to O.R. Tambo International Airport in Kempton Park.

Xenophobia, a timeline

This is not the first time South Africa has been rocked by xenophobic violence.

May 2008: Nearly 70 people were killed following weeks of violent protests in Gauteng, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape provinces.

April 2015: Seven people were killed and thousands displaced during the violence that spread across several provinces, including Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.

August 2019: Two people were killed in Johannesburg.

Future focus

Political analyst Lesiba Teffo argues South Africa’s government must focus on how to stop the waves of xenophobic violence.

“The question remains: how are you we going to stem this? It has been with us for… the past 15 years, and we have reports that suggest how to deal with this,” says Teffo.

He also says that xenophobia is not a uniquely South Africa problem, but rather a problem on the African continent. He says its root causes are poor governance and a lack of political leadership.

Teffo adds that, instead of Buhari coming to South Africa to confront Ramaphosa, the best platform to resolve the issue is the African Union.

The bottom line: South Africa is not hitting the diplomatic panic bottom yet.

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