Transport minister in Africa denies ‘xenophobic’ Pakistani claims

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Fikile Mbalula, South Africa’s transport minister, claimed his comments made Tuesday at a government youth council conference were not xenophobic, following harsh criticism from youth and civil society groups.

Mbalula was responding to questions at a South African Youth Economic Council (SAYEC) conference when a speaker confronted him about the country’s lack of jobs for young people.

He then suggested that “Pakistanis and illegal foreigners” who had taken over “township business” opportunities were a contributing factor.

Sharon Ekambaram, head of the refugee and migrant rights program at Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), called Mbalula’s comments reckless and a result of political impunity from leaders of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).

“The South African Human Rights Commission took findings from their investigation into xenophobia and made very clear recommendations to hold officials to account. The fact that a minister can make these reckless statements in 2022 shows that the commission has not implemented its recommendations,” she said.

“The minister has the capacity to make brash public statements that fuel the rhetoric of organizations like Operation Dudula and vigilantism.”

According to Stats South Africa, the overall unemployment rate in South Africa is 35 percent, with young people making up more than half of that figure.

This has often led to conflict between immigrants and groups of South Africans who blame the foreigners for taking on jobs and businesses that are supposedly intended for the local population.

For years, intergenerational protests have erupted across the country, with frustrations about unemployment, crime and poor service often spilling over to foreigners.

“He sold his shop to the Pakistanis because he couldn’t compete with them,” Mbalula told the crowd, explaining that his uncle had to sell his shop because “Pakistanis” were selling goods and products at a lower price.

He said it was necessary to question where Pakistani nationals got their stock in order to sell cheaply.

Mbalula, a former police minister, accused Pakistani nationals of being “the biggest loan sharks.” “They have an open book and they lend you and your entire pension goes to the Pakistanis. You can even borrow up to R500. Your entire pension goes to the Pakistanis every month,” he said.

The SAYEC event took place on the eve of the nationwide commemorations of the Soweto uprising. This year marks the 46th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, an anti-apartheid uprising led by black students in Johannesburg’s Soweto township on June 16, 1976.

The protests turned deadly when apartheid police opened fire on the students, killing an estimated 174 people and injuring hundreds. They soon spread across South Africa and became one of the biggest acts of resistance against the apartheid system.

Xenophobic intentions?

Words like Mbalula’s, according to Sindiswe Ndaba, a University of the Witwatersrand student who attended the conference, is leading more young people to join vigilante groups like Operation Dudula.

“For 28 years, the ANC has been turning away. Our socio-economic problems are always other people’s fault and there is never any responsibility from them,” she said.

“You are the minister, you have the power to do something if you think foreigners are taking opportunities away from us, and yet you choose to go on a diatribe and leave us without concrete solutions to unemployment,” the economics student continued. .

When contacted on Wednesday for further clarification, Mbalula said he stood by his words and denied any xenophobic intentions.

Mbalula claimed his statements were not xenophobic: “It’s a problem in terms of local economy,” he said. “The business of spaza shops that used to belong to our people has been taken over by Pakistanis. They can no longer survive and have no choice but to surrender.”

According to a 2015 report by a Commission on Migration and Communal Integration set up by the KwaZulu Natal provincial government, incendiary public statements by political leaders and the spread of misinformation on social media may be enough to encourage armed gangs against immigrants.

The defiant rhetoric and lack of proactive communication contributed to mounting tensions among local communities,” the report said.

In April, an immigrant vigilante killed a 44-year-old undocumented Zimbabwean, Elvis Nyathi.

Nyathi’s death could be a direct result of reckless statements, according to Ekambaram.

“In a country where collective violence is rampant and people feel empowered to take the law into their own hands, if the minister discovers that someone is breaking the law, regardless of nationality, the law must take its place,” she said.

“These messages have a dangerous resonance among young people who are desperate for opportunity and feel disadvantaged. While the truth is that the government is simply failing to implement policies intended to benefit Africans and youth.”

According to Ekambaram, her organization will file a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission.

The ANC Youth League has not responded to requests for comment.



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