PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma on Monday went on the offensive challenging his African peers to take responsibility for the problem of migration.
Monday’s comments by Mr Zuma at the Freedom Day celebrations in Pretoria marked a significant change in tone to a more combative one.
“We cannot shy away from discussing the reasons that forced migrants to flee to SA. All of us need to handle our citizens with care,” said Mr Zuma, who seemed to avoid being perceived as criticising other leaders.
Stung by the continent’s response to the killings — and most recently the recall of the acting Nigerian High Commissioner — Mr Zuma on Monday said economic and governance inadequacies on the continent played a significant role in the migrant problem in SA.
He said SA did not “manufacture” the problem of migrants flooding in and that other African states needed to handle their citizens “with care”.
Since the onset of the xenophobic attacks in Durban and Johannesburg, the government has been at pains to acknowledge South African frailties regarding its citizens’ relationships with the rest of the continent.
The attacks were variously attributed to a number of socioeconomic factors ranging from unemployment to competition for meagre resources.
It was not useful to criticise SA “as if we mushroom these foreign nationals and ill-treat them”, Mr Zuma said.
During consultations last week representatives of foreign nationals in SA made “serious allegations against their countries”, he said. Other foreigners warned of more refugees coming into SA given the developments in their home countries.
Mr Zuma’s comments were accompanied by a police and army raid on parts of Mayfair and Hillbrow in Johannesburg, resulting in the arrests of undocumented foreign nationals.
Political and legal analyst Shadrack Gutto said the South African government was sending mixed messages. On the one hand it wanted to deny that the attacks should be labelled xenophobic and on the other hand it acknowledged that something in the system was wrong.
Mr Gutto said Mr Zuma’s language and tone could be interpreted as meaning that SA had not summoned foreigners to the country. It could also mean that foreigners came to SA at their own risk and that the country should not be blamed.
“SA needs to sober up, cool down, think about it and say we are sorry,” he said.
Nigeria is said to have recalled acting High Commissioner Martin Cobham and his deputy at the weekend. No reasons were given, but speculation is that the move was prompted by the xenophobic attacks.
Mr Gutto said on Monday that the South African government’s reaction to Nigeria’s decision did not show “proper leadership”. SA alluded to Boko Haram atrocities and the Lagos church building collapse in Nigeria.
Political analyst Steven Friedman said it would be strategic for SA to gain the moral high ground by moving beyond the blame game with Nigeria and other countries. A positive development had been the government’s admission that the laws and policy to control migrants were not working, he said.
Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni said Mr Zuma’s comments suggested “a sense of frustration and irritation … possibly after the Nigerian issue”.
It seemed Mr Zuma wanted to highlight the complexity of the issues to get people to “look at both sides of the coin”.
The xenophobic attacks are expected to top the agenda at a Southern African Development Community (Sadc) summit on Wednesday in Harare. The xenophobic actions are also likely to feature prominently at the next African Union (AU) summit in two months’ time.
Mr Fikeni suspected that Mr Zuma wanted to pre-empt those who might want to use the Sadc and AU meetings to attack SA.
It was “a gamble, but someone had to say it”, Mr Fikeni said. He suspected the sentiments had been discussed before, privately, on a number of platforms.