Johannesburg: Vigilantism must not be allowed to take root in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a keynote address at a webinar to mark Nelson Mandela International Day.
“This becomes particularly important as we see reports of increased racial tension and incidents of racial violence especially in some parts of KwaZulu-Natal (province),” Ramaphosa said on Sunday.
The president was referring to tensions in the Indian area of Phoenix, north of Durban, over the last few days as vigilante groups have blocked off entrances in the wake of week-long violence, looting and arson in the region after protests against the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma turned violent.
The protests started after the jailing of Zuma on July 7, but rapidly degenerated into mass mob looting and arson allegedly fuelled by poverty and unemployment.
Zuma was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment by the country’s apex court for contempt of court after he repeatedly refused to testify at the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, where several witnesses have implicated him in corruption.
Armed vigilante groups have been blockading entrances to Phoenix, a township created during the apartheid-era separate development policy of racially-segregated residential areas to forcibly resettle tens of thousands of Indian citizens from across the city.
There have been complaints from residents of three Black townships surrounding Phoenix that they are being debarred entry to the area, even to go to their places of work there, with reports of 20 people killed in Phoenix and others missing.
The racial tension has been aggravated by highly inciting social media messages, most of it fake news, on either side of the divide.
The president called for an end to the dissemination of fake news and messages that incite hate and spread prejudice as he repeated a suggestion from panellists that a portal be established to intercept and address these fake messages to avoid them spreading panic among citizens.
“We also observe efforts to fuel racial tension through social media and other platforms and it is therefore important that all of us must work towards the value of non-racialism and inclusive societies, even at the worst of times,” Ramaphosa said, as he cited the commitment of former President Mandela to this.
“Whilst in the dock, Madiba (clan name by which Mandela is affectionately known) stayed true to the values of non-racialism. He was clear that he fought against white domination and he would fight against Black domination. We must all strive to emulate this example and build one South African nation,” he said.
“President Mandela would have reminded us that despite the challenging times we find ourselves in, we should keep our heads pointing towards the sun and we should keep our feet moving forward. He would encourage us to never give up or even to despair,” Ramaphosa said.
“Vigilantism must not be allowed to take root in our country and those opportunities or temptation must not be allowed at all. We owe it to the legacy of President Mandela and all our brave forebears who sacrificed so much for our freedom to remain steadfast in the face of this well-planned and coordinated attack on our nation,” he said.
“Our young democracy and our movement are going through a very difficult time. Very serious attempts were and continue to be made to instigate the unrest,” Ramaphosa added.
Ramaphosa commended the thousands of people of all races who joined in efforts across the country on Mandela Day to clean up the destruction caused by the looters, who even took away ceilings and counters at shops.
Earlier on Sunday, the president himself rolled up his sleeves and took a shovel to join those who were doing so at a venue in Soweto.
“We cannot say that such attempts will not be made in future, nor can we say that those who seek to divide us will stop in their efforts. But we can say right now that South Africans have shown their mettle,” he said.
“The response of our people gives us reason for optimism and to once again marvel at their optimism and their spirit and their courage in ensuring that they defend their democracy,” Ramaphosa concluded.