International Relations and Co-operation Minister Naledi Pandor candidly told foreign diplomats in Pretoria on Monday that the criminal attacks by South Africans on foreigners over the last two weeks were “embarrassing and shameful”.
The diplomats were impressed by her honesty in frankly acknowledging the xenophobic nature of the attacks, compared to some other government ministers and officials who have denied this as mere criminality.
Pandor had candidly accepted that much of the violence sprung from “Afrophobia” even more so than “xenophobia”, diplomatic sources said.
One said this contrasted with Pandor’s own attitude in an eNCA interview last week when she reacted to criticism from Nigerian politicians about the attacks by suggesting they should help South Africa by preventing Nigerian drug dealers, human traffickers and other criminals from entering South Africa.
Pandor met the foreign envoys in Pretoria as a continuation of a dialogue with them which was established in April by her predecessor Lindiwe Sisulu after an earlier eruption of xenophobic violence.
This week Pandor told the diplomats that the xenophobic violence was a “deeply complex” problem and appealed to them and the international community at large for help in trying to resolve it. She told them it was not rational behaviour but stemmed from deeply enshrined feelings of the poorest of the poor who retaliated against fellow Africans for their own poverty. This was specifically Afrophobia, not xenophobia, which had left her “shocked and disappointed”, the sources said.
“We need your help in overcoming the scourge of xenophobia,” was how one diplomat recorded her remarks.
Pandor partly confirmed this in a press conference after the meeting, saying she had told the diplomats that South Africa was dealing with “a very complex set of socio-economic issues because they relate to migration, immigration, economic opportunity, and to the effective administration of all those areas. And also to community antipathy which we need to address with even greater social cohesion with the community.”
A diplomatic source said in the meeting Pandor’s own officials seemed uneasy about her candour and the frankness of the criticism from some ambassadors.
The xenophobic violence has particularly stoked tensions between South Africa and Nigeria and last week Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari sent a Special Envoy to meet President Ramaphosa to convey his concerns about attacks on Nigerians in South Africa.
Pandor said the two governments – as well as some of the ambassadors in Monday’s meeting – had agreed that much of the tension was being provoked by social media but also by public comments from government leaders who made statements that caused animosity.
She had given an undertaking to share with her colleagues that all government representatives should desist from comments that increased tensions, anger and animosity.
Last week Pandor closed SA’s High Commission in Nigeria because of threats of violence against it. On Monday she said the acting SA High Commissioner had told her the situation was calm enough for it to be reopened though she said that had not yet been done.
However, Godwin Adamu, Nigerian Consul General Nigeria, told AFP on Monday that Nigeria would repatriate about 600 of its citizens from South Africa this week because of the xenophobic violence.
Against this background, in Monday’s meeting, the Nigerian High Commissioner was unsurprisingly among the most vocal critics of the South African government’s efforts to curb the violence. The Zambian, Ugandan and Senegalese counterparts were also critical, sources said. They pointed out that the ambassadors had met with Sisulu and other ministers in April after the previous surge of violence and agreed to establish a working group among the diplomats and ministers to address the problem. The group had never met.
Pandor told journalists she had felt it necessary to reassure the ambassadors that the government was doing all it could to curb the violence and also to discuss with them the proactive steps that should be taken to prevent a recurrence. Her government felt it was vital to create an ongoing platform for collaboration between the government and the diplomats who best knew their nationals and so could help the government in building bridges between South Africans and nationals from other countries. Despite this, though, a diplomat present said no further specific action had been agreed upon in Monday’s meeting to address the problem of xenophobia.
The Singapore High Commissioner told Pandor the violence was harming tourism and investment from his country and others. The Pakistani High Commissioner urged her to set up a meeting between the Pakistani community with the security cluster of ministers as they were scared of possible further attacks against their businesses.
The Egyptian ambassador expressed concern about the safety of his own embassy in Pretoria’s Muckleneuk suburb, close to Sunnyside, which has witnessed some violence. Pandor assured them all that the police would protect them.
“Minister Pandor was as always straightforward and impressive, and somewhat shaken by events at the same time,” said a diplomat from the European regional group.
“She looked us right in the eye and honestly acknowledged the painful issues at stake. She described what happened as Afrophobia more even than xenophobia and didn’t just try to pass it off as mere criminality. And she acknowledged that has happened was embarrassing and shameful.
“This meeting was very useful, more so than many seem to have anticipated.” DM
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