CAPE TOWN, South Africa, Feb 19 – The chairwoman of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress apologised Wednesday for calling opposition leader Julius Malema a “cockroach” – the insult used to ignite the Rwandan genocide.
The unusual move – in a party known for its reluctance to back down – came from Baleka Mbete, who is also Speaker of Parliament and was a key figure in chaotic scenes in the national assembly last week.
Mbete controversially called in security forces to forcibly evict Malema and members of his Economic Freedom Fighters after they disrupted President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address last Thursday.
Addressing an ANC provincial congress on Saturday she referred to “cockroaches like Malema roaming all over the place”.
Malema responded by claiming that Mbete was calling for his assassination.
“If I am killed tomorrow people must know I was killed by Baleka and the ANC… We know what happened to people who were called cockroaches in Rwanda,” he said.
The term was used in Rwandan radio broadcasts to set Hutus against Tutsis in the 1994 genocide, in which some 800,000 people were killed.
“I have concluded that my remarks – all offending statements I made – were inappropriate,” Mbete said.
“I withdraw my remarks unreservedly. I apologise unconditionally, to South Africans, to Parliament and Honourable Julius Malema for any hurt or harm I may have caused.”
It was a rare moment of peace-making in a week that has seen some of the most bitter political confrontations since the end of apartheid 20 years ago.