Business Day, 12 June 2008

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In his most comprehensive response yet to the recent xenophobic violence, President Thabo Mbeki yesterday acknowledged that the attacks had done enormous harm to SA’s standing in the world. At the time of the attacks on immigrants in SA’s townships Mbeki was sharply criticised for failing to provide leadership during the crisis and for continuing to travel the world, leaving the rest of the government to put out fires as best they could. A sombre Mbeki, introducing his budget vote in the National Assembly, said while the violence was the work of a tiny minority of South Africans, “these cowardly attacks have shamed all of us and have soiled the good name of our country, which was earned through centuries of bitter and heroic struggles in pursuit of a humane and just society free of racism, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance”. He said seven years ago the United Nations (UN) chose to use SA as the host for a conference on racism and xenophobia precisely because of what SA had done to end racist rule and build a nonracial society. “Both through the struggle against apartheid, as well as in the manner in which we defied formidable odds to find a peaceful political solution, we gave hope that it was possible for the peoples of the world to be united in their diversity,” Mbeki said. “However, events of the last few weeks — of criminal attacks on immigrants — have impacted negatively on our collective standing as frontline troops in the global struggle for a humane and tolerant world. “I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many South Africans who have united across the country to take a stance against these attacks, thus affirming our ubuntu and the pan-African values that made our country worthy of hosting the UN conference against racism. I am also encouraged that some affected communities stood firm against the instigation of violence and went a step further to protect their immigrant neighbours.” During the debate Mbeki came under a spirited opposition attack for a series of failures, ranging from his leadership during the violence, the electricity crisis, his alleged support for Zimbabwe, his suspension of National Director of Public Prosecutions Vusi Pikoli and his support for suspended police commissioner Jackie Selebi. Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentary leader Sandra Botha said that while it would be dishonest to claim the Presidency had not achieved any successes in a number of critical areas, it had failed to provide the leadership required. She cited Pikoli, Selebi and the failure to deliver services as reasons for questioning the efficacy of the Presidency. “The Ukhahlamba district in Eastern Cape is such a presidential node. Yet, when 140 infants recently perished because of diarrhoea contracted from impurities in drinking water and were rendered untreatable by the shortage of basic medicines at local hospitals, the lack of response from the Presidency was chilling. “The women in these poor areas are subject to poverty and abuse. The children are subjected to the highest child rape incidences in the world — more than 60 children get raped per day. Yet we have under the Presidency the Office of the Status of Women, the Office of the Rights of the Child and the National Youth Commission that are supposed to address their needs, but have seemingly failed to do so year after year. “It was in Alexandra township … that the horrifying xenophobic violence we have been experiencing, originally exploded. Here we saw the poor turn on the poor in a most brutal fashion, at least partially out of frustration with their economic situation and living conditions — something the president has yet to acknowledge. “This is not the kind of Presidency we deserve,” Botha said. Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi reminded Mbeki that as then home affairs minister he had been dragged into court by his cabinet boss (Mbeki) and while he tried to develop an immigration policy that would have prevented the flood of immigrants into SA, all Mbeki did was surround him with “spooks”.