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President Zuma’s Freedom Day Speech and the controversy

Jacob Zuma’s Freedom Day speech on 27th April 2015 coming just over a week after violent xenophobic attacks in parts of Durban and Gauteng provinces has triggered a heated debate among the large online African community on social networks as well as in some capitals in the continent.

The argument has centred on what Zuma supposedly said, what it may mean and its effects; allegations it exonerated xenophobic attacks; allegations of blame shifting and whether it was the right time to say what he said.

First things first, everything is subject to interpretation and Zuma’s speech is no exception, whichever interpretation prevails is a function of the force of the argument presented and not necessarily the truth. Indeed all of the current interpretations of the President’s speech are subject to various factors and are thus hardly free of bias.

To a section of the online community and some African capitals, the suggestion by Mr Zuma that uncontrolled international migration and the recent xenophobic attacks were not mutually exclusive amounted to blame shifting while risking exonerating xenophobia. Some have argued that the two issues – xenophobia and international migration – should have been addressed separately.

Note, Mr Zuma was primarily addressing South African citizens most of whom remain unconvinced that the economy of the independent South Africa has even begun to benefit them. Significantly, many are sceptical of immigration and migrants’ positive contribution to South Africa’s economy and society.

The President’s speech sort to address those concerns, calm down tempers, reassure locals that their concerns were being addressed, their interests will not only be prioritised but will also be protected while balancing that with the rights of immigrants, documented or not.

Subjectively, I think President Zuma’s speech’s content, his tone and timing was right. Far from excusing xenophobia, President Zuma emphasises the importance of observing and protecting the human rights of immigrants. If anything he raises the issue of immigration and questions the human rights of source regions not as an excuse for xenophobic attacks in his country but to rightly highlight the destabilising effect of increasing uncontrolled migration in an already fragile South African society that he repeatedly calls ‘sick’ in his speech.

There was no better time for raising the issues he raised, there may perhaps have been a more appropriate venue for challenging other heads of state’s human rights record but then that was merely a matter of choice than protocol. Xenophobia is a process not an event that could just be addressed in days and then we move on to the next task as suggested by some online contributors.

Like it or not, uncontrolled migration and the rise in right-wing xenophobia and nationalism are linked. The inevitable consequence of migration is an increase in ethnic diversity and this brings about enormous challenges for governments as they try to accommodate diverse peoples within the same social space. We cannot underestimate the challenge faced by South Africa in addressing the reality of increased diversity, finding legal, social and economic mechanisms to ensure mutual respect and mediating relations across different communities.

The blame placed on Zuma’s speech lacks objectivity. Our worry should equally focus on the shortfall in political will among African governments which compromises the actualisation of international decisions on human rights at national level. Africa needs a coordinated response to migration and a serious approach to human rights protection including fighting xenophobia. The President’s speech is balanced, as the head of state Zuma was the right person to make the speech and the timing was his judgement, no one else’s.


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