Cape Times, 30 May 2008

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The government has rebuffed opposition parties' calls for United Nations (UN) intervention to deal with the humanitarian aftermath of the xenophobic violence that has left 56 people dead and seen thousands housed in makeshift camps across the country. ID leader Patricia de Lille on Thursday became the second opposition leader to call for UN assistance, after DA parliamentary leader Sandra Botha earlier wrote to President Thabo Mbeki urging him to involve the UN in local responses to the humanitarian situation. In response, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel said it was "out of place" to expect the UN to deploy "overstretched" personnel to the country. "One has to look at the scale of the tragedy, measure the number of lives lost and look at the number of displaced people and ask yourself whether two weeks ago any of us were in a position to anticipate the scale of this tragedy," he said. De Lille said the expertise and resources of the UN would be "invaluable" and its assistance would improve the situation for the victims of xenophobia. "Government must act swiftly to consolidate all the assistance it can get," she urged. In her letter to the president, Botha called for a "co-ordinated response to the looming human disaster" that includes the involvement of international aid agencies such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "The lack of a co-ordinated response in respect of the crisis... has given rise to real concerns over the government's preparedness and ability to deal with humanitarian disasters of any scale," she wrote. Speaking in Parliament on Thursday, Botha accused the government of stalling on the issue to avoid international embarrassment. She claimed that South Africa had neither the systems nor the resources in place to deal with the situation on its own. "We therefore call on President Mbeki to pick up the phone and make that call without further delay." She explained that members of her party were meeting independently with representatives from the UN in Pretoria, while Cape Town Mayor and party leader Helen Zille has indicated that the city would "warmly welcome" any assistance from international aid agencies. In response to criticism over Mbeki's absence from the country as violence spread from Gauteng to six other provinces in the past two weeks, Manuel said: "The president does not get involved in these kinds of issues - it is the task of disaster management." PAC leader Motsoko Pheko on Thursday warned "the disease of xenophobia" had the potential to destroy Africa faster than HIV and Aids. "In our country, derogatory terms such as 'kaffir' are taboo. Equally, our country must put words such as 'makwerekwere' and 'mantswantle' in the same category as 'kaffir'. "A proper terminology must be found for Africans from outside South Africa. They are not foreigners. They can't be Africans and foreigners at the same time," said Pheko. Government spokesperson Themba Maseko said on Thursday the president had issued "firm instructions" to provincial premiers and the xenophobia task team to ensure that the security forces deal "decisively" with the violence against foreigners.