PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe yesterday came short of blaming Zimbabweans for the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, describing them as thieves.
His taunts came just after Sadc deputy chairperson and Botswana President Seretse Ian Khama had left before the summit ended after he reportedly ganged up with South African President Jacob Zuma and told Mugabe point-blank that most Zimbabweans were fleeing to Botswana and South Africa over his misrule.
Mugabe told journalists in Harare on the sidelines of the Sadc Extraordinary Summit that Zuma should not shoulder blame alone for the attacks that left seven people dead.
Despite vicious attacks targeted at Zuma by several people across the region for the xenophobic attacks in his country, Mugabe blamed locals for the chaos.
Though unconfirmed reports were that Zuma was grilled by fellow Sadc leaders in closed-door meetings, Mugabe said it was shocking that thousands of Zimbabweans were flocking to South Africa.
He said many Zimbabweans, mainly men, affected by xenophobia were vowing that they would go back to South Africa despite the brutal attacks.
“We are sorry for South Africa, the people who are described as an influx in South Africa are not pushed by their governments, (and) they are people who voluntarily go to South Africa,” the 91-year-old Mugabe said.
“They think South Africa is heaven in southern Africa. It’s developed, true, but go there and see that the Africans in the country are still low.
“The lives of the people are very elementary and then there are people from out here who think there is heaven in South Africa and decide to go there and make the situation of Africans there worse.”
Mugabe said although South Africa needed skilled labour in the form of engineers, doctors and teachers among other professionals, criminals had taken advantage of that country’s open-door policy.
“Yes, those are employed, but the majority are those who just jump the border and say ‘SiyeJoni’ (We are going to Johannesburg),” he said.
Mugabe, who is also Sadc chairperson, said he was briefed by colleagues that most of the foreigners, Zimbabweans included, were involved in illegal activities in South Africa.
He singled out Kalangas and others from Matabeleland South, saying they were not educated enough to acquire jobs.
“For our province of Matabeleland South, the men there and boys, if you have not been to South Africa, you would haven’t been to a place of good life and it doesn’t matter what you do there, each and everyone wants to have some method of escaping from home and get to South Africa somehow,” Mugabe said.
He said most Zimbabweans were illegally entering South Africa and acquired new names and identities, pretending to be Zulus or Xhosas.
“It’s not for South Africa to resolve alone. It’s for us the neighbouring countries,” he said.
“Our people shouldn’t have the instinct of rushing to South Africa. Even those who went to universities, they want to remain there and I suppose it’s the life which attracts them.”
He said during the summit, Zuma explained what had happened and spelt out steps that his government was taking to encourage South Africans to be tolerant.
“There are people who think there is heaven in South Africa. Those people make the reality of South Africa worse,” Mugabe added.
However, the President disputed claims by South Africa that pictures of people being burnt alive during the xenophobic attacks were from the 1980s.
In 2008, Mozambican national 35-year-old Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave was set alight and burnt to death at an informal settlement in eastern Johannesburg.
Mugabe said he and other African leaders were convinced the pictures, including one of another Mozambican national, Emmanuel Sithole, who was stabbed to death, were recent.
During the question-and-answer session, Mugabe’s long, winding answers seemed to have unsettled delegates with his chief of protocol, Munyaradzi Kajese, attempting without success to signal him to wind up.
Zuma this week said 4 000 Zimbabweans were in South African prisons for various crimes.