Thabo Mbeki’s xenophobia denialism

Adekeye Adebajo
Sunday Independent (South Africa), 30 April 2017

I recently attended in Johannesburg the 14th anniversary of the African Union’s (AU) African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), a South Africa-based self-monitoring governance mechanism involving 36 African governments as well as their civil society, private sector, and other key constituencies. The keynote speaker at the occasion was former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who had been instrumental in establishing the mechanism in 2003.

During the discussion, Mbeki criticised the Kenyan government for not having heeded the warnings of the APRM report about the country’s forthcoming electoral violence in 2007. Later asked whether he regretted that his own government had failed to act on the 2007 APRM report about impending xenophobic violence in South Africa, Mbeki launched into an extraordinary tirade that effectively amounted to “xenophobia denialism”. His government had denied the warnings of the APRM report in 2007 – led by the respected Nigerian economist Adebayo Adedeji – as “simply not true”. Mbeki’s attack on the APRM report was seen by many, at the time, as an act of infanticide by one of the “Founding Fathers” of the mechanism which had damaged the institution’s credibility. There was a distinct impression that South Africa – in an act of jingoistic “exceptionalism” – felt that the APRM had not really been devised for an “industrialised” country like itself, but rather for “lesser” African nations. This is despite the shocking poverty among 70% of South Africa’s population, and its status as one of the world’s most unequal societies.

A year after the 2007 report’s warnings were ignored, 62 foreigners in Gauteng – mostly from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi – were killed in xenophobic acts of horrendous brutality. In one particularly horrific incident in Johannesburg’s East Rand, a Mozambican citizen, Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, was beaten, stabbed, and set alight by an arsonist mob until he burned to death in front of a watching crowd. No one was ever charged for his murder, and the case was closed in 2010. As a result of the 2008 xenophobic violence, about 100,000 African nationals were forced to seek refuge in camps set up in Africa’s megapolis of Johannesburg. It must be noted that xenophobia is, of course, not restricted to South Africa, and there have historically been instances of xenophobia (mostly expulsions) against fellow Africans in Nigeria, Ghana, South Sudan, Botswana, Angola, and Zambia.

Returning to last month’s APRM meeting, Mbeki warned that “To attach this label ‘xenophobic’, results in many instances of us not understanding…what is the source of this issue.” He rightly noted that one needs to examine the root causes of xenophobic attacks such as “township thuggery”, poverty, more efficient foreign traders outcompeting foreigners, and police unresponsiveness to crime. But there is simply no contradiction between simultaneously calling attacks “xenophobic” and “criminal”, which is the false choice that Mbeki and many South African leaders continue to insist on. The frequent gruesome attacks against gays and lesbians in South Africa – including “corrective rape” and murders – are, after all, examples of both homophobia and criminality. One can surely recognise and condemn both at the same time.

Mbeki further noted during the APRM discussion that “South Africans have a long history of co-existence with other Africans.” But a long history of co-existence was also present in the eastern Congo and Côte d’Ivoire before irresponsible politicians fanned the flames of ethnicity, leading to violent conflict. Flying in the face of all evidence, Mbeki then went on to note that “There isn’t a population of South Africans who attack other Africans simply because of their nationality.” It would be difficult to explain this to Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, and Malawians killed in xenophobic violence, or to Nigerians, Somalis, and Ethiopians whose shops and homes have been burned and looted and their nationals killed in attacks by scores of ordinary South Africans. These resulted in an estimated 350 deaths between 2008 and 2015. Mbeki’s comment that the failure of the police to deal with crime involving African migrants forces communities to take the law into their own hands is hardly a justification for such wanton violence. His statement that South African businesspeople in local communities are simply “trying to protect [their] market”, is both insensitive and irresponsible.

The former South African president then asked: “Why are so many foreigners not attacked?” This clumsy and curious formulation should surely be reversed to ask why so many African nationals are actually attacked. Mbeki went on to argue that this situation could not constitute xenophobia, since the 45,000 Ethiopians in Johannesburg as well as Nigerian professionals had never been attacked. This strange statement simply represents a case of sophistry. Aside from the fact that Ethiopian shops were attacked in Johannesburg in 2008 and Ethiopian traders were killed in attacks in Durban in 2015, many Nigerian professionals like myself can point to several cases of xenophobic sentiments and stereotyping, including by several South African academics.

After Mbeki spoke at the APRM meeting, the Zambian high commissioner to South Africa, Emmanuel Mwamba, offered a stinging rebuke to the former president’s “xenophobia denialism”. Mwamba started by observing that Mbeki had lived in Lusaka during his exile and that Zambian leaders had not spoken in the way that he had just spoken. The Ambassador went on to reject Mbeki’s denials and justifications as effectively condoning unacceptable behaviour, arguing that both xenophobia and Afrophobia needed to be strongly condemned. He highlighted the venal brutality visited on African nationals and their frequent harassment by the South African police; observed that foreign nationals in schools were now required to produce permits; and noted that rather than Mbeki focusing on petty Nigerian drug-dealers, he should instead assess the more complex structural supply-chain of drug-trafficking which involves nationals from European countries. As Mwamba cautioned: “It doesn’t help labelling Nigerian drug-dealers…as this builds prejudice against Nigerians instead of focusing on the fight against crime.” Nigerian scholar-diplomat, Ibrahim Gambari, a new member of the eminent panel of the APRM and Mbeki’s fellow panellist, also noted the widespread involvement of South African nationals in crime, and called for a more effective response by the South African police in protecting foreign nationals.

Mbeki responded to Mwamba’s angry riposte by calling for a meeting with the African diplomatic corps in South Africa, noting somewhat sarcastically that “maybe they could teach me something I don’t know about my own people.” South African journalist, Carien du Plessis, covering the event, later wondered in amazement: “How could he [Mbeki] be so out of touch with sentiment amongst fellow Africans, who are made to feel their foreignness on their skins every day in South Africa, thanks to Mbeki’s own compatriots?”

The biggest damage to Thabo Mbeki’s presidential legacy was undoubtedly what his critics dubbed his “AIDS denialsm”. In contrast, as president, one of Mbeki’s greatest legacies was his Pan-African promotion of peacemaking in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Burundi, as well as his building of AU institutions such as the Commission, the APRM, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and the Pan-African Parliament (PAP). Will this legacy now be imperilled with these remarks? What was particularly frightening about this incident was the thought that, if one of the most Pan-African leaders that South Africa has ever produced could express such jaundiced views, what do other South African leaders really think about the issue of xenophobia? Will “xenophobia denialism” harm Mbeki’s Pan-African credentials in a similar way that “AIDS denialism” has damaged his legacy?