Business Day, 23 May 2008

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The Presidency admitted yesterday, for the first time, that government policy failures contributed to xenophobic violence in Gauteng and the rest of SA. Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad said at a media briefing there was “no question that this has happened as a consequence of government’s failure”. “But if you say the issues are to deal with poverty, the rest of Africa would be in the same state. This is not xenophobia, it’s barbaric. None of this (policy failures, poverty and xenophobia) can justify the attacks.” He was responding to questions on whether the government’s immigration policy, backlogs in the provision of services and intelligence failures had contributed to the crisis. Foreigners have often been blamed for crime, stealing jobs from locals and getting houses and services ahead of locals. The wave of violence started on May 11 . In an interview, Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula admitted that the government had been “caught off guard” by the brutal violence, which has claimed more than 42 lives, injured hundreds and displaced at least 25000 people. Nqakula said: “Intelligence (services) did not think that the conflict would spread and degenerate into violence.” The trouble started in Alexandra township, outside Sandton, and has since spread throughout Gauteng. Attacks against foreigners have also been reported in Durban, Mpumalanga and North West. President Thabo Mbeki this week deployed the defence force to help police in dealing with the violence. Nqakula also admitted that there were weaknesses in service delivery, but said this could not be used to justify the attacks. Xenophobia was a crime, he said. But neither Nqakula nor Pahad could explain the comments of the director-general of the National Intelligence Agency, Manala Manzini, that the violence had been deliberately unleashed and orchestrated ahead of next year’s general election. Manzini said at a conference in Cape Town, “We believe that as SA prepares for another national election early next year, the so-called black-on-black violence that was witnessed prior to our first election in 1994 has deliberately been unleashed and orchestrated.” Despite Pahad’s concession on policy failures, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said that in hindsight she would not have changed the government’s immigration policy. Two years ago, civil society organisations warned that the influx of Zimbabweans — because of a political, economic and social crisis in that country — was reaching crisis proportions. But the government ignored the warnings and did not take any special measures to deal with the influx of immigrants fleeing the crisis in Zimbabwe. “I still maintain that to set up camps for anyone is still not correct, but I’m also now saying let’s have a debate,” Mapisa-Nqakula said in an interview with Business Day. Victims of violence included Zimbabweans, Malawians, Mozambicans and Somalis. Although the government denies that it is now setting up refugee camps for immigrants, Nqakula said an instruction had been given to Gauteng mayors to identify land on which to erect tents for those displaced in the recent attacks. Pahad was also asked to explain why Mbeki had seen fit to merely issue statements on the unrest, and had not visited victims of the violence or gone to the unrest areas. “We would have to look at that (Mbeki visiting unrest areas), and see how it (the violence) unfolds,” Pahad said.