South Africa’s hosting of a summit of African leaders will give it the chance to repair relations with the rest of the continent, after an outbreak of xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals that left seven people dead.
While President Jacob Zuma deployed the army to halt attacks on African migrants by mobs wielding machetes and sticks around Johannesburg and Durban in March and April, South Africa faced criticism for not responding quickly enough. The African Union, Nigeria and Zimbabwe publicly condemned the violence.
Even though the issue isn’t on the agenda of the African Union summit scheduled to take place in Johannesburg June 14 to June 15, the government needs to show it isn’t brushing it aside, said Razia Khan, head of Africa research at Standard Chartered.
“There’s no denying the reality that South Africa’s reputation within the rest of the region would have been tarnished,” she said by phone from London on June 9. “This African Union summit is a good way for South Africa to reach out to the rest of Africa.”
The violence erupted as some poor South Africans see Somalis, Ethiopians, Malawians and Pakistanis as competitors for jobs and business opportunities in a country with 26% unemployment. One fifth of the population of 54 million survive on less than R335 a month.
The 54-nation AU replaced the Organisation of African Unity in 2002, and seeks to promote continental unity, integration and development. Zimbabwean PresidentRobert Mugabe holds the group’s rotating chairmanship, while former South African foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma heads the AU commission, which runs its day-to-day affairs.
“Our future is inherently linked to that of the rest of the African continent,” South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters in Pretoria on June 8.
The summit will focus on ensuring that women play a bigger role in Africa’s economy and addressing the continent’s security challenges. Those include upheaval in Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza is seeking a third term that his opponents say is unconstitutional, and insurrections being waged by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya.
The leaders will also discuss efforts to establish a fre trade zone on the continent, which would create a market with a combined gross domestic product of $2trn.
The first steps toward the establishment of the bloc were taken this month when three regional trading groups – the Common Market for East and Southern Africa, the East African Community and the Southern African Development Community – agreed to a free trade accord.
The summit “is a wonderful opportunity for South Africa to take the lead in plans to form a new trade bloc” and to say “the xenophobic attacks were isolated”, Ian Cruickshanks, chief economist at the Institute of Race Relations, said by phone on June 9.
“This is an opportunity for South Africa to go and say we are able to work for Africa and this is what we want to do.”