Mugabe says South Africa isn’t 'heaven', and 'Africans in the country are still very low', as whites live better

“People must get back to their own country. We should do whatever we can to prevent more people going into South Africa", says veteran leader.

ZIMBABWEAN President Robert Mugabe said South Africa isn’t the “heaven” that would-be migrants think it is, and countries in the region should do more to curb their citizens from flocking there.

“Yes, it’s highly developed, but go there and see that the Africans in the country are still very low,” Mugabe, 91, told reporters in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, following a regional heads-of-state summit. “It’s the whites that are living better lives, more advanced lives.”

A surge of attacks on immigrants in Johannesburg and the eastern port city of Durban this month has left at least seven people dead and thousands displaced. South Africa deployed the army into townships to help quell the violence.

“People must get back to their own country,” Mugabe said. “We, the neighbors, should do whatever we can to prevent more people going into South Africa and try to get those who are in South Africa to get back home.”

The 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), which Mugabe is chairing this year, hasn’t taken any specific steps to curb migration to South Africa, he said.

Zimbabwe’s economic slump since 2000 has driven many citizens to seek jobs in neighboring South Africa. The University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg estimates there are about 1.5 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa.

Ahead of the  SADC meeting, it was expected that tensions over the xenophobic attacks  in South Africa would be officially set aside as regional leaders met to plan industrial growth, an official said.

But heads of state from countries whose nationals were killed or forced to flee could  choose to raise the issue, Zimbabwe’s presidential spokesman George Charamba told AFP.

“It’s an extraordinary summit and by definition it’s a one-issue summit,” he said.

“Whether people are going to take advantage and bring the matter up will be at the discretion of the heads of state.”

At least seven people died and thousands were displaced by the violence in South Africa earlier this month against migrant workers from countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi.

The presidents of all three of those countries—and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma—were among the 10 heads of state expected at the one-day summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in the Zimbabwean capital Harare.

The subject of the summit—industrialisation—was itself expected to raise the issue of why so many citizens of neighbouring countries head for South Africa, the continent’s most sophisticated economy, to find work.

Zuma, who condemned the attacks after an outcry at home and abroad, focused on the problem on Tuesday in a manner unlikely to have been well received in neighbouring capitals.

“We cannot shy away from discussing the reasons that forced migrants to flee to South Africa,” he said. “All of us need to handle our citizens with care.”

Host President Robert Mugabe, for example, has been blamed for a collapse in Zimbabwe’s economy which has sent millions of his people to seek work in South Africa.

But Zuma himself has been criticised at home for failing to reduce rampant unemployment and poverty, which are seen as an underlying cause of the violence by mobs who accused migrants of stealing their jobs.

The Harare meeting was a follow-up to a summit in Victoria Falls last August which resolved to discourage the export of primary goods and develop industries to ensure the region reaps maximum benefit from its resources.

Briefing journalists after a ministers’ meeting ahead of the summit, Zimbabwe’s Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi said “the idea is that the processing should be done in the region.

“As you know, the bulk of our products are exported in their raw form and we get little returns from them,” Mumbengegwi said.

Heads of state who were expected at the summit are presidents Jacob Zuma (South Africa), Edgar Lungu (Zambia), Peter Mutharika (Malawi), Ian Khama (Botswana), Joseph Kabila (Democratic Republic of Congo), Kailash Purryag (Mauritius), Filipe Nyusi (Mozambique), Hage Geingob (Namibia), King Mswati III (Swaziland) and Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili (Lesotho). 

- Bloomberg and AFP

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