HARARE - President Robert Mugabe yesterday broke his silence as anti-immigrant violence spread to parts of Johannesburg’s commercial heart, and amid withering criticism over his hitherto quiet diplomacy on the matter.
In a conciliatory speech marking the country’s independence from Britain 35 years ago, Mugabe expressed shock at the xenophobia that the UN Refugee Agency has said has internally displaced 5 000 people in the current wave of violence.
“I would want now to express our sense of shock and disgust, and as we abhor the incident that happened in Durban where some five or six Africans were burnt to death deliberately by some members of the South African Zulu community,” Mugabe said.
“We understand it was a protest against the influx into South Africa of or by citizens of neighbouring countries.
“The act of treating other Africans in that horrible way can never be condoned by anyone. And whether these are followers of the Zulu King (Goodwill) Zwelithini, or the followers of some other misled of the South African community, we say on our own behalf and on behalf of Sadc as indeed on behalf of the African Union, that must never happen again,” added the AU and Sadc chairman.
Zimbabwe is facing its worst crisis since independence in 1980, with soaring unemployment, scarcity of foreign exchange and food which many blame on Mugabe’s policies.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) accuses Mugabe of being the push factor of immigrants to neighbouring countries and stealing the 2013 presidential election.
The opposition has vowed to lead street protests in a bid to drive him out of office.
The South African government has come under increasing pressure from other African States to stop the violence against immigrants in the country.
Mugabe said: “Our own African people on the African continent must be treated with dignity.
“If there is any issue arising from the influx of Africans into any country, surely that can be discussed and measures taken, taken amicably to deal and address the situation.
“We are glad that president (Jacob) Zuma has expressed his abhorrence just as we are doing at what happened.
“He has done so in regard to that incident, assuring us and assuring other African people on the continent that this is not the South African way, that it is the way of misguided South Africans.
“We take it at that and we are glad there has been this denunciation from the government of South Africa.”
Addressing the National Assembly on Thursday afternoon, Zuma said the attacks violated all the values that South Africa embodied, especially respect for human life, human rights, human dignity and Ubuntu.
“We appeal for calm, an end to the violence and restraint,” he said.
“Criminal elements should not be allowed to take advantage of the concerns of citizens to sow mayhem and destruction.
“Any problems or issues of concern to South African citizens must be resolved peacefully and through dialogue.
“The police have been directed to work around the clock to protect both foreign nationals and citizens and to arrest looters and those committing acts of violence.
“On our part, we have all the same, put in place, measures to bring back those of our people in South Africa who would want to be brought back now. “These measures have been taken by a group of ministers working together and transport has been lain on in South Africa to bring them to the border and from the border, our own transport, our own buses, to bring them into the country so that they can be brought to their own homes.”
Mugabe, the country’s sole ruler since the former Rhodesia gained independence in 1980, says the economy has been sabotaged by domestic and Western opponents of his land campaign aimed at redressing past colonial injustices.
The European Union and the United States have slapped sanctions on Mugabe and his inner circle even though the EU has scrapped most of the measures.
They deny allegations by Zimbabwean leaders that their opposition to Mugabe is “racist” and aimed at controlling the country’s natural resources.