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Tribute to Xenophobia Victims

3 July 2008

The South African pioneers of African freedom, like Tiyo Soga, Pixley kaIsaka Seme and J.J. Xaba would never have stood for xenophobia, President Thabo Mbeki said at a gathering in Tshwane this afternoon.

He was speaking at the National Tribute in Remembrance of the Victims of Attacks on Foreign Nationals and South Africans held in the Pretoria City Hall. I went with our Archbishop, His Eminence Metropolitan Seraphim, Archibshop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and Father Athinodoros Papaevripaides (usually known as Fr Athos Pappas for short).

It was an interesting gathering. It was a relatively warm and sunny winter afternoon. The city hall was crowded with a couple of thousand people, and there were several members of the cabinet and provincial premiers there as well. There were also some of those who had been displaced in the violence, and relatives of some of those who had been killed. A choir sang while we waited for the meeting to begin.

The meeting opened with the choir singing the national anthem, and few people joined in. Unusually, for a “national” occasion, there were no raised fists or hands on hearts. It seemed a bit like a football match being played in a foreign country. Four religious leaders led opening prayers — Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Then there was an opening address by the Mayor of Tshwane, Dr G Ramopkgopa.

The Minister of Safety and Security, Charles Nqakula have a brief report on efforts to deal with the attacks, and said that investigations so far had shown that the attacks were orchestrated by criminal gangs. A young person from one of the affected communities, Thabiso (I did not catch his surname) spoke on the action community members had taken to bring back the people who had been chased out, and to organise the community to protect them. Another community leader from a different place told a similar story. Bishop Ndanganeni Phaswana of the Lutheran Church noted that South Africa was not the only country that had experienced such violence, and alluded to the recent violence in Zimbabwe.

The Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, Ambassador Abdalla Alzubedi, then spoke about the attacks on behalf of the diplomatic community

Those criminal attacks were condemned by the government and the people of South Africa as well as by other governments and peoples of the world in solidarity with the victims and their families and their countries of origin from which many of them of them had come to South Africa as refugees seeking better political, social and economic environments.

Ambassador Alzubedi and Archbishop SeraphimHe too noted that such violence was not unique to South Africa but was found in many countries of the world, and he called for a concerted effort by all the nations of the world to find remedies. The picture shows His Excellency Ambassador Abdalla Alzubedi (on left) with His Eminence, Metropolitan Seraphim, the Orthodox Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

There was a video clip of a younger Thabo Mbeki, then Deputy President, saying “I am an African”, and then he spoke, pointing out that the pioneers would not have countenanced xenophobia for a moment, and that their vision was Africa-wide. He singled out the leaders of the Ethiopian Church in South Africa for special mention, saying that their vision of a century and more ago was for a church that united Africa. I found that especially interesting, because of my own historical studies on the Ethiopian Church. He emhpasised that the majority of South Africans still hold to that vision, and that racism, chauvinism and xenophopia are the view of a minority.

Premier of the Western Cape Ebrahim Rassool and Archbishop SeraphimThere was a final vote of thanks and summing up of the proceedings by Ebrahim Rassool, Premier of the Western Cape (seen in the photo with Archbishop Seraphim). He, like the other speakers, apologised for the violence that had occurred, and thanked the civil society organisations and religious bodies that had not only helped with food, blankets, accommodation and so on for the displaced people, but had given the government valuable advice on how to deal with the situation. He thanked the police and members of the civil service for their efforts to track down the perpetrators. And he reiterated the determination expressed by other speakers that we must never allow this sort of thing to happen again.

I’m not a journalist, and I don’t normally mix with the movers and shakers and the rich and famous, so I’m probably not in a position to analyse what was going on there. Political journalists, who see political leaders week by week and measure the smallest changes in the political climate may have a different idea about the significance of this event, and the mood of the gathering. So my take on it is that of an ordinary citizen, but some things struck me.

1. There was a mood of both contrition and determination. Contrition for having allowed such things to happen. There was no mincing of words. The government speakers were apologising for failing to protect people and their rights under the constitution by allowing such things to happen. I got the impression that people in government had found it a sobering experience.

2. There was also a reaffirmation of the ideals of human rights, freedom and welcoming of refugees, and a determination never to allow this kind of thing to happen again. There was concern that the foreign media, especially, had speculated that the ideals of liberation, freedom and democracy were dead, and that there was a new inward-looking chauvinism and ubuntu was dead. Ambassador Alzubedi told the story of a freedom fighter who had been seriously wounded and taken to the morgue, where he woke up, and, realising where he was, began shouting that he was alive and demanding to be let out. A mortuary attendant said, “Well the doctors say you’re dead, so just lie down quietly.” The ideals, he suggested, were not dead, and would not lie down.

3. There was also a bit of a wakeup call from civil society and religious leaders in particular. Sometimes in the past one has sometimes had the impression that ANC leaders, especially those who spent a long time in exile, down-played the part played by religious leaders in the liberation struggle, and tended to be a bit stand-offish towards them. The response of civil society organisations in general, and religious groups in particular, to the crisis seems to have made quite an impression.

4. But there didn’t seem to be many people there from the new leadership of the ANC, and that cast a bit of a pall over the proceedings. There were all these people expressing determination never to allow this kind of thing to happen again — but will they still be here after next year? And when President Thabo Mbeki announced that three people from the freedom struggle had died recently, it seemed to rub the point in. Have the ideals really been passed to the next generation?

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