South Africa’s transition to democracy was one of the world’s most iconic testimonies of tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Our peaceful transformation had stunned the world when our critics had predicted that the country would be divided by a civil war.
Over the last 19 years since our historic elections in 1994, we have strived to create a multicultural society based on unity. However, the recent criminal acts of violence and looting of shops owned by foreign nationals in townships around Gauteng threaten our achievements.
All that we have built; all our achievements will be erased if we cannot live together in peace and harmony with all people residing in South Africa. The government strongly condemns these criminal acts instigated by opportunistic individuals.
What was initially an isolated incident between a Somali shopkeeper and two Zimbabwean customers has been used by unscrupulous thugs to pursue their own criminal agenda by attacking foreign nationals and looting their shops.
These criminal actions by a handful of perpetrators are in no way a reflection of the true state of relations between foreign nationals living and working within our communities. For decades South Africans in Gauteng and most parts of the country have lived side by side in peace with other nationalities.
In many cases the businesses operated by foreign nationals are contributing to the local economy and providing a vital service to members of the community. The government calls on communities to be vigilant and to avoid being manipulated by people who are bent on exploiting such situations.
We should also exercise caution as a society not to label our country xenophobic, when we are confronted with acts of criminality. These malicious acts must be seen for what they truly represent. We urge all South Africans to join in the national condemnation against those criminal elements who are attempting ruin our reputation.
Furthermore, we must not allow these criminals to drive a wedge between ourselves and our African brothers and sisters. In the spirit of Africa month, which we recently celebrated, let us embrace and partner with our fellow Africans in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.
We are reminded that during the dark days of apartheid, African countries remained undeterred in their support for South Africa’s struggle by accommodating our leaders and activists. Their support played an important role in our attainment of freedom.
An important characteristic of our democratic South Africa is the promotion of interaction among people of different backgrounds and nationalities. The Constitution asserts that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. Foreign nationals residing in the country are afforded the same protection under the Constitution.
In his State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma said: “It is unacceptable when people’s rights are violated by perpetrators of violent actions, such as actions that lead to injury and death of persons, damage to property and the destruction of valuable public infrastructure.”
President Zuma added: “We are duty bound to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic. We will spare no effort in doing so.”
The government is determined to ensure that all who reside within our borders enjoy all rights as enshrined in our Constitution and that these rights are exercised in line with the Bill of Rights and the confines of the law.
Furthermore, in order to render these criminal elements powerless, we must collectively address misconceptions and stereotypes about foreign nationals or other cultural groups to ensure that such incidents do not happen again.
Business, labour, faith-based and civil society organisations are called upon to use their various platforms to address stereotypes about foreigners and educate South Africans about the need to co-exist with foreign nationals.
The suggestions that foreigners alone are responsible for the high crime levels or take away economic opportunities meant for South Africans are all misconceptions which should be condemned.
Many foreign nationals have become an integral part of our social fabric, contributing to our development as a nation. We urge communities and organisations to ensure that all people in South Africa, including foreign nationals, are protected from any form of violence.
The message is clear; incidents of this nature have no place in our increasingly cosmopolitan society. The government is committed to rooting out any form of violence and to ensure that all who live in our country do so without fear of being attacked by criminals.
Our law enforcement agencies will use the full might of the law to ensure that no further violence takes place. They will also ensure that those who engage in, actively encourage or incite communities are brought to justice.
These measures are already part of our priority of fighting crime and creating a safe and secure environment for all in the country. The government would like to commend the swift action of the South African Police Services in apprehending those associated with the recent lawlessness.
The police have indicated that those arrested are being charged for public violence, possession of unlicensed firearms, housebreaking and theft. As a nation we must not allow the actions of criminals to go against what so many brave South Africans had valiantly fought for during the struggle.
It is up to every South African to safeguard our achievements by being vigilant to threats of violence and present this information immediately to the police.
Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)