President Jacob Zuma told African leaders during an African Union meeting on xenophobia that South Africans were not xenophobic.
Zuma told the leaders in a closed-door session at the start of the AU assembly of heads of state in Sandton on Sunday morning, that the recent attacks on foreign nationals also saw the death of three South Africans.
He said South Africans took a stand against xenophobia, which “shattered the stereotype that South Africans are intolerant, specifically against fellow Africans or that South Africans are xenophobic,” he said.
“South Africans are not xenophobic. We do not believe that the actions of a few out of more than 50 million citizens justify the label of xenophobia.”
Zuma also denied that Operation Fiela, the anti-crime campaign launched following the attacks and involving the army and police, was aimed against foreigners.
“Rumours that Fiela is an anti-foreign national campaign are not true. We are fighting crime to protect all in our country, citizens and nationals of other countries,” he said.
He said the operation focused on drug and human trafficking, hijacking, illegal firearms and other serious crimes, and the majority arrested so far in the operation have been South Africans.
He hailed the operation as a success.
Zuma assured leaders that South Africa took its obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights “very seriously”, and it was a signatory to international treaties that obliged it to protect foreign nationals and refugees, such as the Geneva Protocol on Refugees.
In his scripted speech Zuma said nothing to the leaders about improving the governance in countries from which refugees are forced to flee, but instead said the AU’s infrastructure programmes could help solve the continent’s problems of migrants.
“We need to work together within the AU to respond to the challenge of migration, whether in SADC or in the North where the crisis in the Mediterranean sea continues,” he said.
He said the AU was working towards a “better and integrated Africa” and that intra-Africa trade, regional integration, infrastructure and other economic interventions that would improve the economic situation in African countries.
This very summit takes us a step further towards the goal of socio-economic growth and development of our continent.”
The closed session, during which the deaths of thousands of migrants was also discussed, ended more than three hours late, which meant the opening of the summit, which was supposed to take place at 11:30, only took place at 16:00.
Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir, who is considered a fugitive of justice from the International Criminal Court, was in attendance after jetting into Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport on Saturday night.
Bashir also attended the opening session of the AU assembly of heads of state late on Sunday afternoon.
AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma congratulated him as one of the heads of state who were re-elected recently.