'QUICK RESPONSE' TO XENOPHOBIC ATTACKS

The Pretoria News, 27 June 2008

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President Thabo Mbeki has revealed that police have completed an investigation on xenophobic attacks dating back to so-called service delivery protests in 2005 that saw attacks on Pakistani and Bangladeshi businesses in Gauteng. He dismissed widespread criticism of his government's apparent tardiness in responding to the recent wave of xenophobic violence that claimed the lives of at least 62 people, including 21 South Africans. Answering questions in parliament on Thursday, Mbeki defended government's actions, pointing out that the police - "as part of this government response" - were quick to deploy to the affected areas to stop the violence. "I don't accept this idea that there was some delay and that government was paralysed and didn't know what to do. It is not correct," he told MPs. Mbeki also informed parliament that according to the police report now completed, among those who were arrested for the attacks a perception existed that foreign nationals were to blame for "high levels of crime" and for "taking up jobs that should be reserved for locals". Businesses run by foreign nationals were also "accused" of offering products at lower prices, remaining open for longer hours and of selling stolen goods. Those questioned - "who do not necessarily reflect the truth" - also complain that foreign nationals accessed social services such subsidised housing and healthcare at the expense of locals, according to Mbeki. The president drew a few giggles when he further revealed that the "attackers" complained that local women preferred foreigners "because they are willing to spend more money on them than local men". Mbeki suggested that the competition for limited resources appeared to be the main reason behind the attacks, but was quick to point out that "criminal elements" also exploited the situation to rob foreign owned businesses. A number of Somali traders apparently told Mbeki that the unregulated nature of spaza shops had created a situation where too many small traders were competing in too small a market, leading to conflict. They have urged the government to properly regulate this industry to avoid future conflict between local and foreign-owned spaza shops. Mbeki compared this situation to the taxi industry, where violence frequently erupts over competition for limited routes. The president also repeated the government's position that refugee centres should not become a permanent feature, but undertook to ensure that existing "camps" are properly equipped so that people are treated as humanely as possible. He thanked those communities who stood their ground by inviting and welcoming foreign nationals back into their communities and encouraged other communities to follow this example. One MP proposed a national campaign to rid the country of the use of "derogatory" terms such as "makwerekwere" (foreigner), to which Mbeki responded that the use of the term dated back many decades and could therefore not be blamed for the latest spate of violence. The government plans to pay tribute to the victims of recent xenophobic attacks in a service to be held in Pretoria on July 3, the Presidency said on Thursday. "Leaders of government, the diplomatic corps, families of victims and civil society will gather to show remorse and declare that such acts of violence are never repeated," said spokesperson Thabang Chiloane. The service will be held at the Pretoria city hall.