South Africa is scrambling to reassure the African Union that the country does not have any official policy that sanctions violence against foreign nationals.
Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba said government would meet AU diplomats and ambassadors on Friday to emphasise to them that South Africa was doing all it could to stem the wave of anti-foreigner sentiment that is sweeping across South Africa.
“But it is necessary for ambassadors that before they make (reckless) pronouncements, to meet government and seek to immense themselves with knowledge with what is going on the ground,” Gigaba said while addressing a press conference in Parliament.
His address came ahead of a divisive protest march organised by the Mamelodi Concerned Residents in Pretoria on Friday.
“We expect ambassadors will appeal to their nationals to respect the laws of the country in which they live,” he said.
He also said there had been no anti-xenophobic statement which had been perpertuated by the government. “We try our best to manage calm and responsible pronouncements in an environment where there is a number of international and domestic populace who seek to pounce on the vulnerability of immigrants in order to become popular, and serve their own interests,” Gigaba added.
South Africa is experiencing heightened tensions between immigrant communities and South Africans who blame migrants for everything from crime, drugs and joblessness to hijacking buildings and stealing their women.
MTN attacked in Nigeria
The effects of the tensions are spreading across the continent in many ways than one, with reports this week that Nigerian protesters attacked and vandalised the head office of South African mobile phone giant MTN in Abuja on Thursday in apparent retaliation for anti-Nigerian violence in South Africa.
“They are protesting against the xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa. It’s our regional head office in Abuja. That’s where we have our customer care center,” the MTN spokesman said.
“They vandalised equipment, stole customer phones and I-Pads. Some customers too were attacked.”
A South African government source described the attack as serious. “This wasn’t just some people on the street throwing stones. They broke into the building and stole things and broke things,” the source said.
Nigeria and South Africa, the continent’s two largest economies and pre-eminent diplomatic and military powers, enjoy a volatile relationship.
In South Africa at least 20 shops believed to belong to immigrants were looted in Pretoria although police refused to say if the attackers were specifically targeting foreigners.
Anti-immigrant violence flares sporadically in South Africa, fuelled by persistent 26 percent unemployment and a belief that African foreigners, some of them illegal immigrants, are taking jobs from locals. Responding to attacks on the shops, Nigeria’s foreign ministry said it would summon South Africa’s envoy to raise its concerns over “xenophobic attacks” on Nigerians, other Africans and Pakistanis.
Minister Gigaba said the SA government was going ahead with efforts to holistically manage immigration and the documentation of migrants. He cited the Lesotho and Zimbabwe special permit dispensations which he said had made a huge difference in separating asylum seekers and economic migrants.
He took a swipe at fake sound clippings and photo-shopped pictures that are circulating both in the country and other countries on the African continent purporting to be showing xenophobic attacks in the country.
“I wish to deny categorically that those are authentic. They have been photo-shopped and the sound clipping is work of somebody who seeks to instill hysteria in the country to incite the public as well as drive fear among foreign nationals both in the country and abroad.”
“In an environment of heightened tensions, you don’t want irresponsible jokes. Don’t make irresponsble jokes that add fuel to the fire,” he said. Gigaba explained that companies operating in the country had to first employ locals and that was a similar phenomenon in other countries.
” This 60% is a minimum target. We are not saying every company must employ 60% South Africans and 40% foreign nationals,” he said, adding that the quota could be changed on advice from the immigration advisory board.
But, he sent a stern warning to businesses that continued to hire undocumented foreign nationals.
“We are to vist to ensure compliance and as we have done in other shops we will charge managers with non-compliance with South African laws.”
He insisted that foreigners with critical sskills were welcome to seek employment and the same applied to those in possession of legal visas and permits allowing them to be and work in the country.
He also called for an end to the profiling of persons commitign crime according to their nationality.
“We must deal with those committing crime, whatever their country of origin is, as criminals and alleged criminals according to what our constitution and laws prescribe.”