PPE corruption scandal unmasked in South Africa

South Africans donated billions of dollars to protect key workers. But with bank accounts frozen and sports cars seized, questions are being raised about where the money went. 

What started as a rallying call for South Africans to stand together against the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, quickly disintegrated into a morass of bureaucratic bungling, corruption and outright looting involving multi-million-dollar tenders allegedly awarded to politically connected individuals tasked with supplying personal protection equipment (PPE). 

In March, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.

He called on the people to be resolute and firm and to support the government’s decision to declare a national state of disaster, and lockdown the country for three weeks.

He also announced the creation of the Solidarity Fund – with an initial R150 million ($8.7m) from the state – to deal with the coming Covid-19 storm.

The speech, delivered with gravitas and frankness, shifted even his most fervent detractors, and the money poured in.

The families and businesses of the Oppenheimers, the Ruperts and the Motsepes immediately committed R1 billion ($58m) each.

Online internet giant Naspers kicked in R1.5 billion ($87.5m). Two-thirds of the cash was used to source, procure and distribute PPE and the remaining third paid directly into the fund.

Within weeks, the fund had attracted $30bn, and within six months some $142m had been disbursed on what the fund listed as ‘interventions and projects across three key pillars – Health, Humanitarian Relief and Behavioural Change’ – with huge sums spent to provide PPE for frontline health workers.

As the country moved into ever-decreasing alert levels, the regulations surrounding the lockdown became submerged in illogic and nonsense.

Retailers could sell T-shirts, but only if they were to be worn under a jacket; they could not sell open-toed sandals; the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition even placed absurd restrictions on e-commerce shopping.

There were rumours of fierce battles within the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), headed by Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. 

The mood of the country shifted from determination and support to anger and disillusionment.

Then stories began to trickle in about the PPE contracts.

In April, the province of Gauteng’s Health Department’s Supply Chain Chief Director, Thandy Pino – just two weeks into her position – apparently warned her department head, Mkhululi Lukhele, and the Chief Financial Officer, Kabelo Lehloenya, that the department wasn’t complying with National Treasury procurement guidelines for Covid-19 PPE.

The amount involved was around R2bn ($116m).

A month later, Lehloenya resigned, and Pino was suspended while the SIU investigates her role in the tender awards. 

But the alarm bells went off in July when presidential spokesperson and confidant Khusela Diko was placed on leave following revelations that her husband, king of the amaBhaca people Thandisizwe Diko, had secured a $2.75m PPE contract.

By the end of July, the deal – which Diko withdrew from – along with more than 90 other tenders issued by Gauteng’s Department of Health, was being investigated by a nine-institution unit headed by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU).

The SIU was set up by the President on July 23 to deal with allegations of PPE corruption.

The probe into Khusela Diko, which includes the Gauteng health minister, Dr Bandile Masuku, and his wife, councillor Loyiso Masuku, has yet to be resolved, despite a marathon two-day hearing held mid-September. 

Questions really began to be raised, though, when a young businessman by the name of Hamilton Ndlovu posted a video showing him taking delivery of five luxury vehicles – three Porsches, a Jeep and a Lamborghini Urus SUV – worth roughly $645,000.

Ndlovu, who runs an ‘engineering solutions’ company, reportedly secured a $7.3m PPE contract in the Eastern Cape province.

At the time of going to press, Ndlovu’s bank accounts had been frozen and three of the cars seized pending an investigation. 

By mid-September, the SIU was investigating more than 658 PPE tenders and other pandemic-related contracts worth around $300m.

Meanwhile, Brig Hangwani Mulaudzi, spokesperson for South Africa’s elite anti-corruption unit the Hawks, confirmed officers were investigating more than 50 cases regarding substandard or falsified PPE.

This investigation followed on reports from the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), which revealed that approximately 60 per cent of the medical-grade masks it tested did not meet its quality criteria. 

Ironically, the Hawks are also involved in investigating themselves after it came to light that four contracts worth $31.6m to supply the police with PPE were under investigation. 

The rot seems to be widespread. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal, the SIU is looking into the Department of Education and the Department of Social Development’s PPE contracts respectively valued at $28m and $1.25m. 

According to a report issued by the Auditor-General, Kimi Makwetu, the items were ‘priced at more than double, or even five times, the prescribed price’.

It goes on to say: ‘There are clear signs of overpricing, unfair processes, potential fraud and supply chain management legislation being sidestepped’.

The Auditor-General’s final report is expected in November.

It will be his swan song, as his seven-year term of office comes to an end. 

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Xenophobia goes viral - and Nigerians are the target

Donald Paul reports from South Africa on the street protests and anti-migrant laws targeting Nigerians and other foreigners.

Back in May 2008, South Africa’s status as the so-called Rainbow Nation was hanging by a thread.

The townships were ablaze, foreign-owned businesses had been looted and thousands of migrants – specifically those from other African countries, as well as people from Pakistan and Bangladesh – had been forced to flee their homes.

The xenophobic violence spread to Cape Town, and the world watched in horror as clouds of thick black smoke rose against the iconic Table Mountain.

Gangs of South African youths rounded on migrants from Zimbabwe, Somalia and Nigeria, among others, for ‘taking jobs’ and being ‘responsible’ for the rise in crime. Sixty-two people were killed, of which 41 were immigrants.

The repeated official line from law enforcement that the violence was criminal-driven and not xenophobic implied that the government was not taking it seriously.

The year ended with the then president Thabo Mbeki being recalled by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the country collectively shrugged its shoulders and carried on as before.

Life did not get any easier for foreigners (or locals, for that matter).

By 2019, with an estimated four million immigrants, South Africa was the largest home for immigrants on the continent.

In September last year, the simmering xenophobia flared again, with more deaths, looting and destruction, fuelled by the government’s increasingly disastrous economic and social delivery programmes.

True to form, the government launched what it called a ‘National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance’.

Like most government projects, it was soon bogged down with endemic bureaucratic malaise.

According to a report released last month by Human Rights Watch, the xenophobia never went away.

It linked attacks on truckers between 2018 and 2019 with the problem.

Almost 200 truckers were killed during the period and numerous vehicles torched.

President Cyril Ramaphosa called for calm.

But critics have claimed that the president played up to ‘xenophobic populism’ during his 2019 election campaign.

The non-profit organisation Right2Know, launched in 2010, even went so far as to blame the South African government explicitly for the xenophobia.

Fast forward to today, and once again xenophobia has surfaced, this time with the added value of social media.

Over the past six months, a concerted campaign – mostly conducted on Twitter and Facebook – began amplifying the xenophobic populism.

The most prominent on this was an incendiary anti-immigrant Twitter account, @uLerato_pillay.

The messaging taps into one of the country’s most critical socio-economic problems: unemployment.

The Quarterly Labour Force Survey released in June stated unemployment in South Africa increased to 30.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2020.

The demographic most affected are young people aged 15–34 years – more than 63 per cent are unemployed.

The messages from @uLerato_pillay are regularly re-tweeted by the African Transformation Movement (ATM), whose head of policy and strategy, Mzwanele Manyi, is a former ANC government spin doctor.

ATM, a fringe political party whose manifesto is ‘Put South Africans First’, along with a group calling itself ‘Action For Change’ was behind the protests in September outside the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria and the Nigerian Consulate in Johannesburg.

Nigeria recalled its high commissioner to South Africa, Kabiru Bala, in response to the violence and wild accusations levelled during the protest, accusing Nigerians of being ‘drug lords and rapists’.

Jean le Roux, a research associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab, who is based in South Africa, has tracked the anonymous @uLerato_pillay Twitter account for two months

He wrote in a report that the Twitter account ‘belongs to Sifiso Jeffrey Gwala, a former lance corporal with the 121st SA Infantry Battalion, in KwaZulu-Natal.’

Le Roux pointed out, the Tweets ‘bubbled to the surface of mainstream media outlets’ and amounted to ‘reckless political opportunism’.

The ATM and Action for Change distanced themselves from the account.

Ramaphosa, hosting the World Economic Forum on Africa at the beginning of September, said the nation was committed to stopping the attacks.

Nevertheless, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Malawi pulled out of the conference and talks about developing intra-African trade seem to have stalled.

To add fuel to the fire, the province of Gauteng, which is home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, proposed a new law that would reserve certain economic activities in townships for South African citizens.

Drawn up by the provincial premier David Makhura’s office, the draft Gauteng Township Economic Development Bill does not specify which economic activities, but critics argue it plays into the xenophobic populism and fits in with Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola’s call last year for ‘tough legislation’ against foreign nationals operating in the townships.

Foreigners are reluctant to comment for fear of being singled-out.

Most told NewsAfrica, however, that the mood in the country was tense, and that they did not expect the government to provide much relief in the foreseeable future.

And with the municipal elections scheduled for 2021, fears are that politicians are likely to ramp up the xenophobic populism.

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Hope for safari recovery post Covid

Almost 10 per cent of Africa’s economy relies on the tourism industry, which was shuttered by Covid-19. But, as travel editor and TV tourism expert Jill Starley-Grainger reports, for the millions employed by the safari industry, there is confidence that the good times – and the tourists – will return. 

In a typical year, thousands of tourists visit Africa to spot lions, zebras and elephants – and to lounge on the continent’s white-sand beaches.

It’s a vitally important industry that employs 25 million people directly or indirectly, including a large number in well-paying jobs, such as rangers and guides.

But Africa’s safari industry has been particularly badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with the impact devastating businesses, communities and conservation efforts alike.

Africa as a whole has suffered a 57 per cent loss in international arrivals due to the pandemic, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, and safari business are particularly reliant on an international clientele, most of whom have been unable to travel to Africa since March.

This has led to a significant reduction in customers and the temporary – and potentially permanent – closure of many companies reliant on safari tourism.

A recent survey by SafariBookings.com found that safari tour operators have seen bookings decrease by three quarters or more over the last four months, compared to the same time last year.

And many have received no customers or bookings at all.

The human cost:

Travel operator Aardvark Safaris, which works with lodges throughout Africa, has seen the devastating human impact of this sudden loss of tourists.

‘We support over 1,000 camps and lodges throughout sub-Saharan Africa,’ said co-owner Alice Gully.

‘And they are all looking at a year with limited or no income. Not only does this affect jobs, but it affects the dependants on these employees.

In Kenya, for example, seven million people are employed in tourism - a third of the country’s workforce - and they each have approximately seven dependants.’

In Botswana, Desert & Delta Safaris managed to maintain all of its staff, albeit on reduced incomes, said Andrew Flat, Desert & Delta Safaris’ marketing manager.

‘High-value, low-volume destinations like Botswana have faced incalculable losses. Botswana is roughly the size of France, but with a population of just over two million people, and around 40 per cent of the country consists of protected parks and reserves.’

With so few visitors to such a vast region, even a small dip in numbers can have devastating consequences for communities.

Some safari businesses have managed to fare a little better, such as Go Places Africa DMC.

It arranges safaris in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia, and has managed to maintain all staff.

'Management and directors took salary cuts to make sure that we were able to pay our staff without any cuts as they rely on their salaries for their livelihood, and some of them are the main bread earners in their families. We also set up internet services for our staff in their homes to ensure regular communication virtually with them as well as with our clients.’

In South Africa, meanwhile, hotels across the country have had virtually no income since March.

Royal Malewane was effectively closed for five months with zero revenue,’ said Ross Bowers, marketing manager of the luxury lodge in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park.

'The pandemic has been devastating for our industry, for our staff and for their many dependents. Government support for the industry has been extremely limited, but we fought hard to keep everyone employed.

He added: ‘Since we reopened, we have had very limited local business. We need international visitors to return as soon as possible. Recovery for the safari industry will be extremely slow, but we are optimistic that safaris, nature and wildlife will be highly sought after post-Covid experiences.’

Conservation crisis:

Covid-19’s economic impact is significant for conservation, too, with some reporting an increase in poaching activity.

‘With no game drives, there are fewer eyes on the ground to watch out for poachers,’ said Gully of Aardvark Safaris.

This is a real concern throughout the industry, added Luke Bailes, founder and executive chairman of Singita, which has 15 luxury eco-lodges in Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

‘If ecotourism stops funding the conservation work of non-profit conservation partners, the likelihood of illegal hunting and poaching increases,’ explained the Anglo-Kenyan businessman, whose family have been involved in the Kenyan safari industry since the 1920s.

'Laid-off workers could turn to poaching to make ends meet, and if anti-poaching efforts are not maintained, traffickers have easier access to the animals and will simply stockpile until they can transport to their end markets.’

Some governments have taken heed of the impact on their wildlife and landscapes, and have put plans in place to try to increase protection in some areas.

In South Africa, the government, conservation organisations and local communities recently announced a plan to create protection areas to safeguard rhinos from poachers.

But the funds available for this are limited, and until international visitors return in significant numbers, it’s likely that both the landscapes and the animals that conservation projects help will suffer.

Future bookings:

While some African countries have recently started allowing international visitors, more openings are planned in the coming months.

This has helped a little for 2020, but since much of Europe and North America – the two major markets for Africa’s wildlife experiences – are still in various forms of lockdown, most safari businesses are pinning their hopes on 2021.

Roar Africa, a luxury specialist operating in 13 countries in southern and eastern Africa, has seen a massive profit hit this year, but does have some bookings for next year.

‘We had over 300 trips booked for 2020, and have had to move 80 per cent of them,’ said Deborah Calmeyer, Roar Africa’s CEO and founder.

‘With the recent reopening of Kenya and Rwanda, we have seen more enquiries for travel to these destinations, but we have a long way to go to get to pre-Covid levels of tourism.’

‘We have seen a marked increase in enquiries since restrictions began to lift,’ noted Toby Pheasant, founder of Bonamy Travel, which operates in 15 countries in Africa.

‘There has been an increase of 320 per cent [in enquiries]. But while we would normally expect to convert between 60 and 70 per cent of these, [the number that result in sales] is significantly lower than we would expect, at around 10 per cent.’

It seems many customers are dreaming and planning, but still worried about the pandemic and travel restrictions, so less inclined to make a booking.

But some of the people who missed out on their 2020 safari trip are securing bookings early for next year.

African Bush Camps, which runs 15 luxury camps in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, has recently seen a noticeable increase in reservations, particularly for 2021, said its CEO and founder, Beks Ndlovu.

‘Bookings were up 400 per cent in mid-August for 2021 in comparison to 2019 bookings.’

This increase is no doubt helped by the company’s new policy of a 100 per cent refundable deposit – a clever strategy to ensure guests know they won’t be out of pocket if the crisis affects their travel plans.

South African tour operator Unearth Experience has seen a similar trend in forward bookings for its safari trips, which it arranges to destinations throughout Africa.

‘The majority of our clientele impacted by Covid-19 restrictions have opted to postpone their travel plans versus cancelling their trips.

This has allowed us to have a strong forward book for 2021,’ said Rory James Loader, managing director.

Nobody knows how the pandemic will play out, but many safari businesses are doing their best to prepare, and there are hope that many will be able to adapt to ensure the future of the industry.

‘Africa is tough, its people and wildlife are resilient,’ opined Flatt of Desert & Delta Safaris.

‘The silver lining is that we are still here, ready and waiting to welcome guests back to our lodges, and ready to prove that, post-pandemic, nothing beats the social distancing a Botswana safari offers.’

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Xenophobia plagues South Africa

The resurgence of anti-foreigner violence in election run-up sparks accusations that the government is fuelling xenophobia rather than solving it. By Newton Sibanda

Attacks targeting foreigners that began in South Africa almost a decade ago have resurfaced again, raising concerns about the failure of Africa’s economic giant to decisively deal with the scourge. This time the attacks were mainly concentrated around the port city of Durban in Kwazulu Natal. In a statement issued in March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said at least six foreign nationals had been killed and more than 100 severely injured in the city over the course of a few days as mobs armed with metal rods and machetes broke into the homes of foreigners to chase them away and loot their belongings. 

One woman died when she fell through a roof while she was running away from protesters. Another two people died from gunshot wounds, allegedly inflicted by a shopkeeper. The chief targets were Malawians. Three hundred had to shelter at a police station near to where they lived in a squatter camp, forced to do so because the police failed to protect them when the attacks were underway, they said.   

About a hundred have since returned to their country and the Malawian consulate is being urged to fast track more applications for repatriations. Stanley Chilembwe, a Malawian community leader in Durban, said: “People are scared, they do not feel safe. Many have left, some even without the help of the embassy and those who have not left are waiting to leave.”    

Most migrants flock to South African in search of  work, and this is one of the underlying triggers of the violence. Despite being Africa’s industrial giant, South Africa’s unemployment rate is painfully high, officially standing at more than 27 per cent. Foreigners are seen as taking away the few available jobs from locals.  

In one incident on March 25, a group of South African truck drivers and other locals protesting against the employment of foreign truck drivers blocked the South Coast Road near Durban’s docks, pulled foreign drivers from their trucks, took the truck keys, and beat them up. Tinei Takawira, a driver, said he was stabbed as the police looked on without attempting to arrest the attackers or helping him get medical care.

A sinister message later put out on social media threatened that all foreigners would be attacked “mercilessly” unless they left the country by May 13. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa, acknowledged the harmful economic impact that could result from such attacks, promising that police would crack down on perpetrators. He said: “our economy and society benefit from our extensive trade and investment relations with partners on our continent”, many of whom were living in South Africa and “making important contributions to the development of our country”. 

He added: “African development depends on the increased movement of people, goods and services between different countries for all of us to benefit. We will not allow criminals to set back these processes.” 

Grim history

Xenophobic violence is nothing new in South Africa. Just months after the first multi-racial elections ushered Nelson Mandela into power in 1994, armed youth gangs in the Alexandra Township outside of Johannesburg  destroyed the homes and property of suspected undocumented migrants and marched the individuals down to the local police station where they demanded that the foreigners be forcibly and immediately removed. 

In 2000, seven people were brutally murdered in Cape Town, including a Kenyan, two Nigerians and two Angolans. In 2008, South Africa experienced its worst outbreak of violence against foreigners when more than 60 people died. Attacks began in Johannesburg before spreading to other urban areas across the country, mainly Durban and Cape Town, but also in countryside townships. The victims were predominantly Zimbabwean and Mozambican. Hundreds of people were injured and shops and houses burned and looted. 

 In 2015 two weeks of unrest in Johannesburg and Durban claimed seven lives as migrants were hunted down and attacked by gangs. Elias Twaibu barely escaped with his life when he was set upon by vigilantes in Durban. The 30-year-old returned home to Malawi, but continued hard times there drove him back to South Africa, where he became a victim of the March attacks. 

“Coming back to a country that stripped me of my dignity became my only option,” he told Durban’s Sunday Tribune. “I was so desperate and impoverished that I came back here. It’s a decision I truly regret making.”

Most South Africans are appalled by what has been happening, not only for the mindless brutality of the violence but also because many of its victims hail from countries whose support helped bring an end to apartheid. This was a point made by Ramaphosa in his condemnation of the attacks in April.  But at an African National Congress rally days earlier he promised a crackdown against undocumented migrants.  “Everybody just arrives in our townships and rural areas and set up businesses without licenses and permits. We are going to bring this to an end,” he stated. 

It is a widespread view that remarks such as these are to blame for fuelling xenophobia over the years. For instance, the 2015 attacks came after Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini called for the deportation of foreigners, saying it was unacceptable for locals to compete with people from other countries for the few economic opportunities available.

“When you walk in the street you cannot recognise a shop that you used to know because it has been taken over by foreigners, who then mess it up by hanging amanikiniki (rags),” he said at the time. “We’re requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries.”  

The influential monarch initially denied the remarks but when he was played a recording of them‚ he said the media “misinterpreted his words and distorts them to sell newspapers”. A huge furore followed. The Special Reference Group on Migration and Community Integration in KwaZulu Natal said it condemned “this kind of inflammatory speech” because of the likelihood that it could instigate violence. The investigation found the immediate trigger of the violence was the result of “deliberate efforts to drive away competition by foreign national-owned businesses,” after it was claimed a large local supermarket hired only foreigners. “These incidents together created a combustible environment within the context of prevalent poverty, a difficult international economic climate, increasing socioeconomic inequality and high levels of unemployment.”  

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), after its investigation, ruled that King Zwelithini’s comments on migrants, while  “hurtful and harmful” in that they reinforced stereotypes that potentially caused the marginalisation and the exclusion of foreign nationals‚ they did not amount to “hate speech”. At the same time its chair Lawrence Mushwana highlighted the status of Zwelithini as an “important public figure” whose “influence” was such that “none of the people who spoke to the commission during field research in the area were prepared to have their identities disclosed”.

Evidently, the row had little effect on restraining other politicians from making provocative statements. A few months later, in December 2016, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba said illegal immigrants were responsible for a crime wave.  

As the ANC government continues to struggle in providing basic services, it frequently blames foreigners for over-burdening them. Last November, health minister Aaron Motsoaledi said that the health service was collapsing beneath “the weight that foreign nationals are bringing to the country”. He defended his comments, saying it had “nothing to do with xenophobia, it’s a reality”.

This prompted the African Diaspora Forum to write in protest to the Independent Electoral Commission. “Our feeling is definitely that there are a lot of politicians in government, either from the ANC or the [opposition] Democratic Alliance, who are using populist rhetoric, saying that migrants are responsible for crime and that they cause a shortage in housing and land and are overburdening the health system,” said chair Vusumuzi Sibanda, in an interview with allAfrica.com.   

As the country prepares for elections scheduled for May 8, Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch, called on political parties, politicians, community leaders, and individuals to refrain from statements that fuel divisions, saying that “the president should set a much better example”. 

Zambia’s High Commissioner to South Africa, Emmanuel Mwamba, also condemned certain public remarks by civic leaders, saying they should be avoided “especially during the sensitive period of elections due on May 8”.  

Plan with ‘no action’

Ironically, the Department of Justice posted the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, on 25 March – a day before the latest attacks and one that follows previous calls to action. Cynics are now wondering whether this plan will be any more successful than the others.  

The five-year plan, developed in a consultative process between the government and civil society, aims to raise public awareness about anti-racism and equality measures, improve access to justice and better protection for victims, and increase anti-discrimination efforts to help achieve greater equality and justice. But critics say the government threw it together without grasping why several past plans have failed. They assert that it fails to address a key challenge fuelling the problem – South Africa’s lack of accountability for xenophobic crimes.  

Virtually no one has been convicted for the previous spikes in xenophobic violence and civil rights groups say the South African government has failed to act decisively against it.

“Apart from its call for an end to attacks on foreign nationals, the South African government has done little to ensure the arrest and prosecution of those responsible,” said African Diaspora Forum chair Sibanda,. “Strong action is needed to show there are consequences for such acts before there is another round of violence against vulnerable foreign nationals.”  

Human Rights Watch agrees that this impunity for xenophobic crimes remains a key challenge that needs to be urgently addressed, saying the South African government should make clear what steps it is taking to guarantee the safety of non-nationals living in South Africa, particularly migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and to protect their human rights and freedoms. “Re-integration of foreign nationals into communities without justice and accountability for past xenophobic attacks is a recipe for disaster,” said Mavhinga. “To deter those who attack foreign nationals, there is an urgent need for effective policing, arrests, and prosecutions.”

He added: “The National Action Plan is a welcome development indicating the South African government’s intent to fight xenophobia, racism, and all forms of discrimination and prejudice. Now it should fully implement that plan, and work to stem the dangerous tides of intolerance for good.” 

Loren Landau, an expert on migration,   and diversity at the University of the Witwatersrand,  told the news portal The Conversation that the plan “offers frail remedies to poorly diagnosed problems” relying on “perceptions and politics rather than facts” and that it “almost totally” overlooks xenophobia.

Meanwhile, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights special rapporteur for South Africa, Solomon Ayele Dersso, issued a statement on April 2 calling on the South African government to “ensure that the acts of xenophobic attacks are duly investigated and that persons who incited and perpetrated the attacks are brought to justice to end the lack of accountability that fuels xenophobic violence”.

Diplomats step in 

The minister of international relations and co-operation, Lindiwe Sisulu, insists that r xenophobic violence is of great concern to the government. “All criminal activities and looting of properties of foreign nationals will not be tolerated‚ and the police and other law-enforcement agencies must act without fear or favour,” she said.   

Sisulu, who held an urgent meeting with diplomats from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and police minister Bheki Cele in the wake of the attacks, said her government was working closely with the police and other law enforcement agencies to ensure that security is provided to people living in South Africa. She stressed that her government would also work closely with members of the diplomatic corps to ensure that regular updates were given concerning reports of alleged xenophobia. 

At the meeting held at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation in Pretoria, Sisulu noted that safety of people living in South Africa was a collective responsibility –  “as such, SADC member countries would be actively engaged to find a solution”. She assured that her government would guarantee that all citizens, including foreigners, were safe. Sisulu also said police would ensure that trucks and their trade routes were made safe.

The African ambassadors reported afterwards that they persuaded Sisulu and Cele to instruct Cele’s deputy, Bongani Mkongi, to recant a xenophobic statement about foreigners committing “economic sabotage” and threatening to overrun the country. The diplomats said that although he said this two years ago, the video of him making the remarks remained viral and he had never repudiated it.

Mkongi had warned that it was unacceptable that 80 per cent of a South African city – by which he meant Johannesburg’s rundown Hillbrow suburb – was “foreign national” and that if nothing was done about it, the whole country would become “80 per cent foreign national” and that the country’s president would eventually be a foreign national. He insisted that his remarks weren’t xenophobic, which appears to symbolise the whole government’s failure to recognise that xenophobia was behind many of the attacks on foreigners.

Sisulu said Ramaphosa and the ruling ANC both believed the problem was “pure criminality”. However, she also hinted that government might now take a wider view, after hearing the ambassadors who clearly believe the attacks are motivated by xenophobia – or “Afrophobia” as some call it, as most victims are African. “While the ANC may not want to admit it, there is a very real problem of xenophobia in South Africa,” said Gareth Newham, head of the Justice and Violence Prevention programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).   

Newham said attacks continued partly because South Africans know they can get away with it as the police rarely act against perpetrators. He said short-term interventions could include politicians and influential people – such as local musicians, actors, celebrities and the media – speaking out against xenophobia and promoting cohesion with African foreigners.  

Coupled with restrictive visa policies, this has discouraged many highly skilled African immigrants from settling in and travelling to South Africa – with significant economic implications.  

As Ramaphosa acknowledged, the continued xenophobic attacks are likely to have a negative impact on South Africa’s relations with other countries and hurt its economic interests. Noting that South Africa is not an island on its own, it is a country among countries, Sibanda said: “As long as attacks on migrants continue in South Africa, it means that the relationship with other countries and all other people will end with them looking at South Africa negatively. I think the truth of the matter is that it has had a very negative impact on South Africa as a country and will affect relations with neighbouring countries and other African states.”  

Stephanie Wolters is senior research fellow at ISS and says xenophobic eruptions over the years “have already done substantial damage to South Africa’s reputation in the rest of Africa”. Landau says the government must stop scapegoating foreigners for its own failure to deliver services and economic opportunities to its people.

A representative of Zambian nationals,  Deborah Nkokga, called on Ramaphosa to step in decisively. “I think we must tell the president, please stop this,” she stated.   “President Ramaphosa was on the news telling people that he doesn’t care who you are and where you come from, but he is going to sort out anyone who comes here illegally. “I even have a video of the president saying that. I am sure that because of his words the people just took the president’s words to do these [violent] things. The President was talking about ‘illegally’ but these people did not understand English.”

‘We worry for our future here ’ 

Nigerian Emmeka Uhanna, 47, a shop-keeper in South Africa’s industrial hub of Johannesburg, is one of the many African migrants who have set up home in the country.   

“I’ve been living in South Africa since 1997, my wife is South African and we have two children, aged 14 and 16,” he told the BBC in April following the renewed attacks on foreigners.   

“My wife is worried about what future our children will have if the xenophobic attacks become the norm. We don’t know how to explain the hatred against Nigerians to our families, to our children. This is the third round of attacks against foreigners; one was in 2008 where people were killed, again in 2015.  

“I now get calls from home, my family members want to know if we’re safe, they see the stories in the news. I do feel safe, I feel safe because I live in the suburbs away from where the unrest and violence has been happening but I don’t know if I could say that if I was living in a poorer area.  

“There are parts of this city that are no-man’s land, where the police have no control over what happens, where there are no consequences for wrong-doing, that is unfortunately where the xenophobia has thrived. 

“There is just lawlessness from all sides, by all nationalities and that sort of environment is a ticking time-bomb. Life is different in the suburbs but I do worry about my fellow Africans who become victims in these incidents, while they have nothing to do with crime.  

“I love this country, I consider it my home and it breaks my heart to see what is happening. The government needs to seriously address the concerns people are raising - both South Africans and foreigners. 

 “We came to South Africa for different reasons, some of us can never return to our countries, what happens then if you ruin your chances here? We don’t want to live in fear, I'm pleading with the government to address the problems that have come with migration, for the sake of our children.”        

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