Zimbawean opposition political parties say South Africa is paying the price for propping up President Robert Mugabe’s government whose controversial policies are responsible for the influx of economic refugees across the Limpopo River.
In response to South African Police minister Fikile Mbalula – who has accused Zimbabwean ex-soldiers of committing armed robbery and other violent crime – the opposition parties said the ANC government has adopted a policy of appeasement by failing to take firmer action against Mugabe.
Mbalula’s hard-hitting remarks during a press conference in Pretoria on Tuesday have sparked uproar in Zimbabwe.
Some commentators hailed him for his forthright stance while others have condemned the minister for painting every immigrant with the same brush and essentially promoting xenophobia.
In his remarks at the press conference, the recently appointed Mbalula denied fanning xenophobia.
“There are people who come here from Zimbabwe, and they cross the line here.”
‘‘They run away from the military in Zimbabwe and they come here and promote criminality in South Africa.”
‘‘There are Zimbabwean ex-soldiers who are in this country, robbing banks and promoting criminality.”
“They are running away from uncle Bob (President Mugabe) there,” Mbalula told journalists at the media briefing.
“In Zimbabwe once you are a soldier, you are a soldier for life. You can’t get out of it.”
‘‘So to get out of it they run to South Africa, then they come here and rob banks. They are on the payroll of criminals, and we can’t trace them.”
‘‘If a South African steals, it’s easy to trace them because I will find you somewhere in the forensics because I have your fingerprints. I’ve got you all covered, South Africans.”
Mbalula said the Zimbabweans “enter the country illegally and they just come here not to promote goodwill”.
Gorden Moyo, secretary-general of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), said Mbalula’s comments show that the political chickens have come home to roost.
“This reveals a terrible truth about Zimbabwe that a legion of our servicemen desert the army because Mugabe’s government has failed to look after them,” Moyo said.
“It also sends a clear message that the problems (in Zimbabwe) have a direct impact on the domestic affairs.”
“Instead of (President) Zuma popping champagne, celebrating useless bilateral agreements with Mugabe, South Africa should be behaving like Nigeria in west Africa that is forcing dictators to abide by the principles of democracy.”
‘‘While we don’t condone what our army deserters are doing, we definitely condemn both Mugabe and Zuma,” Moyo added.
The Zimbabwean opposition blames South Africa for brokering a coalition government which rescued Mugabe following a blood-tainted general election in 2008.
The Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai, who became prime minister in the “government of national unity” from 2009 to 2013, says Mugabe’s Zanu-PF killed more than 200 of its supporters in that election campaign.
Elton Mangoma, president of the opposition Democrats of Zimbabwe, said South Africa should help its northern neighbour get organised and restore economic prosperity or else the influx of desperate Zimbabweans would not abate.
But Mbalula was also on the receiving end of a torrent of criticism from Zimbabweans who expressed their displeasure at his sweeping statement.
Peeved by the minister’s remark that highly educated Zimbabweans, including doctors, were working in South African kitchens, German-based writer Petina Gappah commented: “Fikile Mbalula is absolutely right.”
“Just about every Zimbabwean is ‘more educated’ than him.”
A commentator on Twitter going by the name Bond Goat wrote: “Fikile Mbalula can identify Zimbabweans by the absence of fingerprints.”
ZiFM Stereo, a Harare radio station whose owners include a cabinet minister, tweeted: “Was Fikile Mbalula’s statement about Zimbabwean soldiers wise considering xenophobic attacks in SA and the history Zim and SA have?”
Harare journalist Nqaba Matshazi commented: “Fikile Mbalula has all the makings of a demagogue, preaching populist rhetoric and appealing to people’s prejudices.”