LAGOS, Nigeria (PANA) – Widespread and varying reactions have greeted the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, with Africans and non-Africans alike pondering what could have led to African-on-African violence at a time the continent is pushing on with plans to form the United States of Africa.
Though Zimbabweans, Malawians, Mozambicans and Nigerians have borne the brunt of the attacks, which have left over 40 dead and thousands displaced, other Africans living in South Africa are not faring better.
After initially rejecting calls to deploy troops to assist the police in curtailing the attacks, the South African authorities have brought out the soldiers, marking the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994 that such an action has been taken.
Since starting in Johannesburg suburbs May 11, the attacks by rampaging South Africans have spread to the township as well as Durban and beyond.
In Nigeria, the federal government reacted swiftly by directing its Consulate in South Africa to immediately take care of displaced and affected Nigerians, while President Umaru Yar’Adua took up the issue with his South African counterpart, Thabo Mbeki at the African Union Committee of 12 meeting in Arusha, Tanzania. Details of their meeting have not yet been released.
While the government embarks on diplomacy, ordinary Nigerians and the local press were less restrained.
In a piece entitled: “South Africans forget so soon,” the private Nation newspaper wrote: “It is a cruel twist of fate. Before 1994, a mere 14 years ago when apartheid formally ended, Black South Africans were the ones on the run.
“Much of the world lent a hand, many opened their doors. The African continent was particularly supportive. Nigerian universities took many South African exiles in for study, as did the rest of the continent, including Mozambique. Today, South Africans are purging their land of Nigerians and Mozambicans as well as other foreigners,” the paper wrote.
The article reflects the opinion of many Nigerians on the attack.
“This maltreatment of our people residing in South Africa is totally unwarranted, uncalled for and unacceptable to Nigerians,” Bolaji Abimbola wrote in a May 23 letter to the editor of a local newspaper.
While calling for an urgent intervention of the AU, the director of research at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Prof. Waris Alli, said, however the attacks would not have a mortal effect on Africa’s solidarity
“I don’t think we should assume that this is going to lead to the collapse of African solidarity. You see it is painful though, but this is not the first country on the continent where foreigners have been used as scapegoats for their failure. Nonetheless it is an unfortunate development which should not be encouraged,” the foreign relations expert added.
From the Southern African Development Community (SADC) came a sharp rebuke: The attacks constitute a blight on the region’s long held solidarity, which dates back to the fight against oppressive colonial machinery.
SADC Executive Secretary Tomaz Salomao said the 15-member community SADC was fully supportive of what the South African government is doing to stop the violence, adding that SADC had always had a culture of supporting one another.
“What is happening now does not make sense and we cannot say that is the position of South Africa,” Mr. Salomao said in a May 23 interview.
Bishop Zephania Kameeta of Namibia’s Evangal Lutheran Church of Namibia said xenophobia could not be condoned and urged governments in the region to address the issue of peace and violence.
In Kenya, Prime Minister Raila Odinga blamed the attacks on the continued economic crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe and urged African nations to act in solidarity with South Africa, saying the violence was temporary.
“Basically the problem in South Africa is Zimbabwe. There has been a huge influx of people from Zimbabwe but I don’t think those Zimbabweans have an intention of staying in South Africa forever,” Mr. Odinga said.
In line with the prime minister’s admonition, Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula softened an earlier stance on South Africa and called for solidarity with Pretoria, saying the attacks should not push diplomatic friction amongst Africans.
In Malawi, where at least six Malawians were reported to have died in the attacks, a human rights organization has called on SADC to “move in swiftly and protect” their citizens.
“HRCC (Human Rights Consultative Committee) is calling upon the governments in SADC including Malawi to move in swiftly and protect its citizens that are living in South Africa. SADC governments have a moral obligation to protect its citizenry wherever they may be to the greatest possible and practical extent,” it said.
Samuel Kachoka, who was staying in Soweto, told PANA from his village in the lakeshore district of Mangochi that he had to flee “quickly” after being warned that foreigners were being targeted.
“I didn’t have time to collect anything from home,” said Mr. Kachoka, who was working at a service station downtown Johannesburg.
UN agencies operating in South Africa have expressed deep concern about the violence.
“Most of the victims are law abiding migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, seeking a safe and better life for their families,” the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator of the UN in South Africa said in a statement.
Key South African leaders, including former President Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, as well as the opposition Democratic Alliance have also reacted strongly to the attacks, which they said were not in the best interest of their country and its people.
Despite the fact that Zimbabweans fleeing violence and economic hardship at home have been the hardest hit, the reaction of the Zimbabwean authorities has been largely mooted.
Analysts said the Zimbabwean leaders could be avoiding angering Mr. Mbeki, who they see as a key backer, and also because most of the Zimbabweans caught up are opposition supporters who have been vocal opponents of the Robert Mugabe regime.
A key issue is the impact the attacks will have on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Perhaps avoiding raising further fears over the competition–already threatened by high crime rate in South Africa–the international football federation, FIFA, opted for an expression of hope.
FIFA spokesperson Delia Fisher said while the organization was “obviously concerned” about the violence, it hoped the 2010 World Cup would help heal the divisions in the country.