'With heads bowed in shame': Thabo Mbeki's 2008 xenophobia speech
This isn't the first time South Africa has been wracked by xenophobic rioting - the following is the speech given by then president Thabo Mbeki following the May 2008 riots. Different decade, different president, how much has changed?
Directors of Ceremony,
Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Premiers, Mayors and members of all spheres of Government,
Your Excellencies, Diplomatic Representatives of the sister nations of the world,
Representatives of communities which live and work side by side with our immigrant population,
Leaders of political parties,
Comrades, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Fellow South Africans:
I am privileged to participate in this important Gathering of Remembrance to honour fellow Africans from our country and other parts of the African continent whose lives were needlessly ended through the criminal violence which erupted in various localities in our country in May this year.
Many of us present here today view ourselves as the offspring of forebears who advanced a noble vision starting 150 years ago – the vision of Africans, on our Continent and the Diaspora, free at last, proud of themselves and their heritage, and united in their resolve to combine in a mighty force of liberation to uplift themselves.
I speak here of the Rev Tiyo Soga.
More than 140 years ago, Tiyo Soga wrote about the unity of all Africans both on the Continent and the Diaspora. Writing to salute the struggle of the African-Americans for freedom from slavery during the American Civil War, he said the African-Americans were “looking forward to the dawn of a better day for (the African-American) and all his sable brethren in Africa.”
I also speak here of J.G. Xaba.
110 (1897) years ago, J.G. Xaba, one of the founders of the Ethiopian church movement in our country, said “the aim of the Ethiopian church is to promote…unity in the whole continent of Africa.”
I speak too of Pixley ka Isaka Seme.
100 (1906) years ago, Pixley Seme celebrated the grandeur and dignity of all Africans in the following and famous moving passages:
“I would ask you not to compare Africa to Europe or to any other continent. I make this request not from any fear that such comparison might bring humiliation upon Africa. The reason, I have stated - a common standard is impossible! Come with me to the ancient capital of Egypt, Thebes, the city of one hundred gates. The grandeur of its venerable ruins and the gigantic proportions of its architecture reduce to insignificance the boasted monuments of other nations.
“The pyramids of Egypt are structures to which the world presents nothing comparable. The mighty monuments seem to look with disdain on every other work of human art and to vie with nature herself. All the glory of Egypt belongs to Africa and her people. These monuments are the indestructible memorials of their great and original genius.
“It is not through Egypt alone that Africa claims such unrivalled historic achievements. I could have spoken of the pyramids of Ethiopia, which, though inferior in size to those of Egypt, far surpass them in architectural beauty; their sepulchres which evince the highest purity of taste, and of many prehistoric ruins in other parts of Africa. In such ruins Africa is like the golden sun, that, having sunk beneath the western horizon, still plays upon the world which he sustained and enlightened in his career…
“Oh, for that historian who, with the open pen of truth, will bring to Africa''s claim the strength of written proof. He will tell of a race whose onward tide was often swelled with tears, but in whose heart bondage has not quenched the fire of former years. He will write that in these later days when Earth''s noble ones are named, she has a roll of honour too, of whom she is not ashamed.
“The giant is awakening! From the four corners of the earth Africa''s sons, who have been proved through fire and sword, are marching to the future''s golden door bearing the records of deeds of valour done.”
The visionary words spoken by Tiyo Soga in the 7th decade of the 19th century gave birth to the historic goal enunciated by J.G. Xaba in the 10th decade of the same century, and this, in turn, inspired Pixley Seme’s prophetic imagining during the 1st decade of the 20th century, which foretold of the future golden door of freedom.
It is on these foundations, which are more than a hundred-and-fifty years old, that generations of our people built a great edifice of African hope, Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress.
It is from this Mother of Hope that we have drawn the nourishment that has defined and taught us who and what we want to be, a Mother of Hope who must fight through all time to remain the Mother of Hope she has been for many generations.
As we have grown up, because of where we have suckled, we have therefore always known that we belong among the teeming millions of Africans in Africa and the Diaspora, an inalienable part of these masses.
We have always known that regardless of the boundaries drawn by others to define us as different and separate from our kith and kin, and even despite our occupation of different spaces across the divides occasioned by the existence of the oceans that nature has formed, we share with those of whom we are part, a common destiny.
We have also always striven to combine with all Africans in Africa and the Diaspora in one united, gigantic, open conspiracy and effort to restore to ourselves our collective human dignity, based on the unshakeable conviction that no African anywhere will be free until all Africans everywhere are free.
Because we have, at all times, known of the grandeur and originality of Africa and the Africans, of which Pixley Seme spoke, of the indelible valour of the African heroes and heroines proved through fire and sword, of whom Pixley Seme wrote, we have known that as Africa and Africans, acting together, we will achieve our Renaissance, our rebirth.
We have constantly thought it self-evident that, as Pixley ka Isaka Seme had said, the regeneration of Africa would come to be, and would mean that “a new and unique civilisation would soon be added to the world…(whose) essential departure (would be) that it is thoroughly spiritual and humanistic – indeed a regeneration moral and eternal!”
And yet we, the offspring and heirs to the noble spirit and vision of African unity and solidarity advanced by our own giants of thought and action, Tiyo Soga, J.G. Xaba and Pixley Seme, have gathered here today with heads bowed in shame because it has seemed that what happened in our country in May betrayed the dreams of many generations, including our own.
We have gathered here today to convey to all Africans everywhere, to all African nations, severally and collectively, to our own people, and to the families of people who were murdered, our sincere condolences, and our heartfelt apologies that Africans in our country committed unpardonable crimes against other Africans.
We have convened here to express our pain that, today, we have fellow Africans from various African countries – Somalia, the DRC, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Malawi – and others, who are quarantined in temporary camps, separated from the African communities in which they lived peacefully as fellow-Africans, until the dark days of May that descended upon them without warning.
We are meeting here, today, to pledge that:
• we will do everything necessary to ensure that as Africans, regardless of our geographic origins, we will once more live together as Africans, at peace with one another, refusing to impose on ourselves a new apartheid order;
• we will work expeditiously to achieve the reintegration of all the displaced Africans within the communities from which they were forced to flee because of murderous criminal activities;
• we will do everything necessary to assist the victims of this criminal onslaught, both the South Africans and our foreign guests, to resume their normal lives;
• we will act without any unnecessary delay to address all genuine concerns which may give birth to tensions between the native and immigrant Africans;
• as we work to improve our social and national cohesion, we will also address the challenge to entrench the understanding that this includes full acceptance within all our communities of new residents from other countries, as well as the understanding among the latter that we welcome them as good neighbours and citizens;
• we will work to mobilise all our communities to isolate and defeat the evil elements in our midst who target vulnerable African migrants, subjecting them to violent attacks for criminal purposes and personal gain;
• we will ensure that all those responsible for the criminal activities during the dark days of May, targeted against African migrants, face the full might of the law; and,
• we will take all necessary and possible measures to sustain respect for the law and our Constitutional order by all who live in our country, and the safety and security of all these, whether native-born or immigrant.
As many were killed or maimed during the dark days of May, thousands displaced, businesses and homes looted, and homes and businesses destroyed by arson, I heard it said insistently that my people have turned or have become xenophobic.
The word xenophobia means a deep antipathy towards or hatred of foreigners. When I heard some accuse my people of xenophobia, of hatred of foreigners, I wondered what the accusers knew about my people, which I did not know.
Over many years I have visited many parts of our country, both urban and rural, in all our provinces, and met many people from other countries, including African countries, who have not hesitated to announce their countries of origin.
On occasion I have been amazed to hear people in the Western Cape introduce themselves as migrants from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. On occasion I have been amazed to hear people in small towns of Mpumalanga introduce themselves as migrants from Somalia. On occasion I have been amazed to hear people in Western Gauteng introduce themselves as migrants from Mozambique.
On these and other occasions I have known that these immigrants could thus openly introduce themselves because they knew, from their experience, that because they had not experienced any xenophobia, they had no need to hide their countries of origin.
I have been to Guinea Conakry, at the upper end of the Gulf of Guinea on the African west coast. The Guineans told me of their fellow-nationals who live in our country and tell their relatives and government of how they have made our country their new home.
Everything I know about my people tells me that these heirs to the teachings of Tiyo Soga, J.G. Xaba and Pixley Seme, the masses who have consistently responded positively to the Pan-African messages of the oldest liberation movement on our Continent, the African National Congress, are not xenophobic.
These masses are neither antipathetic towards, nor do they hate foreigners. And this I must also say - none in our society has any right to encourage or incite xenophobia by trying to explain naked criminal activity by cloaking it in the garb of xenophobia.
I know that there are some in our country who will charge that what I have said constitutes a denial of our reality.
However, I dare say that if anyone convenes residents of Nkomazi in Mpumalanga, Hammanskaraal, Atteridgeville, Alexandra Township, Diepsloot, Orange Farm, Ekurhuleni, Motherwell, Khayelitsha, Inanda, and stays to listen to these ordinary South Africans, none will hear our people say we should attack immigrants, or that they hate these because they are foreigners.
And yet, despite everything I have said, we have, as native South Africans, gathered here today with heads bowed in shame, because of the immense pain and fear about the future that some among us deliberately inflicted on fellow Africans in our country, who originate from other lands on our Continent and elsewhere in the world.
In spite of this reality, I will not hesitate to assert that my people are not diseased by the terrible affliction of xenophobia which has, in the past, led to the commission of the heinous crime of genocide.
I will not hesitate to say that the cultures of all our people, black and white, and despite the many centuries of racism imposed on our society by force of arms, continue to inform the overwhelming majority of our homesteads that they should welcome all visitors and travellers in a spirit friendship and human compassion.
I will not hesitate to say that despite the centrifugal impulses generated by colonialism and apartheid leading to the dissipation of the human instinct towards human solidarity, my people, still, harbour in their hearts a deep-seated respect for the practice immanent in the outlook described as Ubuntu, to give water, food and refuge to the traveller.
As a people, we fully understand the proverb of the people of Madagascar that it is not the fire in the fireplace which warms the house, but the people who get along well.
Still, we, the offspring and heirs to the noble spirit and vision of African unity and solidarity advanced by our own giants of thought and action, Tiyo Soga, J.G. Xaba and Pixley Seme, have gathered here today with heads bowed in shame, because some in our communities acted in ways that communicated the message that the values of Ubuntu are dead, and that they lie entombed in the graves of the cadavers of people who died ostensibly solely because they came among us as travellers in search of refuge.
Obviously and needless to say, we have a common responsibility to explain this conundrum – the seeming disjuncture which sets in opposition one to the other, what we pride ourselves about who and what we are, and what our practical actions broadcast about who and what we really are.
The dark days of May which have brought us here today were visited on our country by people who acted with criminal intent. What happened during these days was not inspired by a perverse nationalism, or extreme chauvinism, resulting in our communities violently expressing the hitherto unknown sentiment of mass and mindless hatred of foreigners – xenophobia.
Those who have eyes to see will have seen that much of the violence we experienced was targeted at the immigrants who had property to loot. Those who have eyes to see will have seen that the majority of the immigrants who live in conditions of poverty as do many of our people were not attacked.
Those who have eyes to see will have seen that in other disturbances in the past, allegedly occasioned by so-called service failures of municipal councils, small shops owned by immigrants have been looted.
We are confronted by the reality that, objectively, it will take a considerable period of time before we achieve our objective of providing a better life for all our people. Objectively, therefore, together with the masses of our people as a conscious agent of change, we must continue to manage the reality of unfulfilled expectations.
As we have said before, like other countries in Africa and elsewhere in the world, we are going through a very difficult period of rising food and fuel prices, higher costs of borrowing, rising inflation, and therefore the erosion of the living standards of especially the poor.
None of us can be happy or satisfied with this reality.
At the same time we must recognise the reality, and work continuously to oppose it, that some in our midst will seek to exploit this to attack the immigrants in our midst, falsely blaming them for our woes, seeking to use their vulnerability to loot their possessions for personal gain, as happened during the dark days of May.
Today, gathered here as a representative microcosm of our country, we must reaffirm that we remain loyal heirs of our noble forebears, Tiyo Soga, J.G. Xaba, Pixley Seme and the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for our liberation, and therefore will continue, as Africans, to be our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.
Today, gathered here as a representative microcosm of our country, we must reaffirm that we are committed to the sustained pursuit of the goal of the regeneration of Africa and the African Diaspora, based on the unshakeable understanding that we are to one another, as Africans, brothers and sisters.
Today, gathered here as a representative microcosm of our country, we must pledge that never again will we allow that anybody brings shame to our nation by betraying the values of Ubuntu and committing crimes against our visitors and travellers, thus to besmirch the character of the eminently good human beings who constitute our nation as a people afflicted by the cancerous disease of xenophobia.
Today, gathered here as a representative microcosm of our country, and proud of our people’s pioneering and vanguard role in the struggle for the emancipation of all Africans and the restoration of their dignity, we must make the solemn undertaking that we, as leaders and representatives of our people, will continue to act as servants of the African peoples, determined to combat all tendencies that lead to the dissolution of African cohesion and solidarity at the altar of the pursuit of the pernicious goal of personal gain and aggrandisement.
Today, gathered here as a representative microcosm of our country, we must state that we know that the problems of our country and Continent will not be solved by declarations and demands, and suggestions that we have instant solutions to address long-standing and complicated challenges.
I thank you for taking the trouble to gather here this afternoon. Let everybody who comes to learn of this occasion and everything that was said this afternoon, understand the unalterable truths that:
• as Africans we will never abandon the values of Ubuntu;
• as Africans we will never become enemies of other Africans;
• we define ourselves as Africans because we belong within the family of the billion Africans who live in Africa and the Africa Diaspora, who are linked to one another by a common destiny;
• we are proudly African, not only because of our indelible contribution to human civilisation, but also because we know that the regeneration of Africa will add new humane values to human society, as demonstrated by the many in our society who rallied to provide assistance to and reintegrate the thousands of displaced fellow Africans;
• as South Africans, who fought for more than three centuries to achieve the dignity of all Africans and all human beings, regardless of race, colour, and gender, we will never allow that we fall victim to the criminal perversion of xenophobia, which, in earlier times, led to the genocidal destruction of entire peoples in the Americas, South Africa and Australia, and, more recently, the Jewish Holocaust in Europe and the Genocide in Rwanda; and,
• as South Africans, who know the value of international solidarity and Pan-Africanism, we will continue to extend a hand of help to all other Africans whether in Haiti or the Central African Republic; Somalia, Guinea Bissau or Comoros; Sudan, Niger or Zimbabwe.
On behalf of our people and Government I humbly convey to our people, our foreign guests, all Africa and the peoples of the world, our apology that we allowed criminals in our midst to inflict terrible pain and damage to many in our society, including and particularly our foreign guests.
We will do everything possible and necessary to ensure that we have no need in future to proffer this humble apology, which is inspired by genuine remorse.