Business Day, 11 July 2008

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Several months before the recent xenophobic attacks, President Thabo Mbeki disputed the findings of a report warning of SA’s “brutality and detention” of foreigners from other African countries. The intelligence community maintains it warned the government about xenophobic tensions, though “not in a sense of a flashing red light”. Mbeki has denied receiving any such warning. But he cannot have missed the African Peer Review Mechanism’s (APRM’s) cautionary note. Its SA country report concluded that “xenophobia against other Africans is currently on the rise and must be nipped in the bud”. In his response to the report last year, Mbeki denied that xenophobic tendencies existed in SA, pointing out that the country did not even have refugee camps. To illustrate the friendly environment, Mbeki alluded to a state visit by Congolese President Joseph Kabila when illegal immigrants from that country openly requested the two presidents to regularise their status. In Mbeki’s view, the fact that illegal immigrants were able to address the two leaders showed how comfortable they felt in SA. Yet a few months later, 62 people were killed in anti-foreigner attacks that erupted in Alexandra on May 11. A similar warning on the risk of elections worsening ethnic tensions was extended to Kenya in its own review process ahead of December elections. Post-election violence cost about 1000 lives. Last Thursday, Mbeki apologised to the families of victims, describing the violence in SA as unpardonable. But his initial reaction to the warning appears to mirror the government’s response to the findings of the APRM process, which — ironically — Mbeki helped establish. Controversy greeted the release of SA’s peer review report, due largely to the government’s refusal to accept many of the recommendations. Allegations are that the self-assessment report was edited to remove crucial governance problems, and the process rushed at the expense of public input. “If you look very carefully at that response there are certain points where it seems ideologically driven and unwilling to accept criticism,” says Steven Gruzd, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). He attributes the rejectionist tone to infighting in the African National Congress (ANC), which peaked at the December conference when Mbeki failed to be re-elected as party president. “I think there was this desire not to appear weak ... throughout this whole (APRM) process,” he says. The process works through a member country embarking on self-analysis with civil society input. It then develops a programme of action to address any governance problems identified. After this a team of experts led by the APRM panel of eminent persons studies the programme and self-assessment before conducting its own review. The panel’s output constitutes the final report, which recommends action to bring the country to African standards. Action Aid director Zanele Twala says the process appears to have been compromised in SA because civil society was not given the opportunity to respond to the report of the eminent persons. “I would argue that participation was opened up 100% but participation doesn’t always mean influence,” says Twala, who sat on the national governing council. The eminent persons’ report on SA was released in September and points to many problems, including HIV, black economic empowerment, race relations, the skills shortage and gender violence. Mbeki objected to the report’s suggestion that violent crime was unacceptably high, describing the panel’s finding as a populist perception of the problem. SA was in the second group of countries that acceded to the APRM in 2004. Twenty-nine countries have signed on to the process, which is a commitment to accepting periodic peer review and implementing the ensuing programme of action. Nine countries — Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda and SA — have embarked on the review. Six countries have already been peer reviewed, a process that entails making a presentation at a meeting of APRM heads of state and government. Uganda was the last to do so at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik more than a week ago. Nigeria and Burkina Faso will give their presentations at a summit this year when SA is also expected to submit its first progress report. Gruzd, who is co-author of a recent book on the APRM, says there has been a “mismatch” between what the panel of eminent persons identifies as the burning issues and what each country agrees to do. Most peer recommendations were ignored when the first six African countries came to write their programmes, according to SAIIA researcher Faten Aggad. In SA, of the 182 recommendations by the panel, 40% were excluded, including concern over xenophobia. This is still better than the other five countries. Many countries seem to treat the review as a public relations exercise. However, the point of the APRM is not to dictate but to begin a dialogue. “One of the strategic things that APRM tries to do is normalise criticism and the ability to diagnose problems and come up with solutions,” Gruzd says.Presidential spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga was not available for comment.