Cape Town (AFP) – South African President Jacob Zuma on Thursday denied that he was a racist and assured white people that they should not fear being “chased” out of Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation”.
The president also said that a new law preventing foreign ownership of land in South Africa applied only to agricultural properties and not to private residences. Zuma was reacting to concerns raised by some white South Africans after he told a rally of his ruling African National Congress that all the country’s troubles began when the first white settlers landed more than 300 years ago.
“South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white,” he told parliament, quoting the ANC’s Freedom Charter, which was adopted during the fight to end the white racist system of apartheid.
Breaking away from his written speech in response to debate on his state of the nation address last week, he said, “We are a rainbow nation, nobody will chase you away. There should be no fear.” But, he said, he would never stop talking about history because South Africa’s children should know the country’s past to ensure that mistakes were not repeated. Zuma’s off-the-cuff remarks won enthusiastic applause.
It was a redemption of a kind for the president, who has been under fire over the past week since security forces were called into parliament to evict lawmakers who disrupted his annual address by accusing him of corruption.
He said the government was committed to freedom of speech and pledged that the cutting of mobile phone signals in parliament ahead of his address – a move which infuriated reporters and opposition lawmakers – would never happen again.
Addressing the uproar in parliament for the first time, he called for all parties to preserve the dignity of the national assembly, saying “I see no reason why we should get angry.”
Radical lawmakers of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who led the disruption last Thursday, remained silent and seated throughout his speech. But their leader, Julius Malema, has pledged to confront Zuma again over alleged corruption when he returns to parliament for presidential question time on March 11.
While not dealing with the EFF’s demands that he repay some of the $24 million in taxpayer money spent on “security upgrades” to his private residence, Zuma did address their complaints that too much of South Africa’s wealth remains in white hands 20 years after the end of apartheid.
“Inequality is still staring us in the face. Census 2011 informed us that the income of households has hardly changed and that the income of white households is still six times more than that of black households.”
The black majority also owned just three per cent of the Johannesburg stock exchange, he said, pledging to “deracialise the economy”.
Zuma also addressed concerns that planned land reforms limiting the size of farms to enable redistribution of agricultural land to blacks would create a food crisis in the country. Quoting statistics claiming that just 100 farmers produce 70 per cent of South Africa’s food, he said, “We are taking these actions precisely because the fate of too many is in the hands of too few.”
An “inclusive and scientific process” would ensure “that nothing is done that will prejudice food security in the country,” he said.