09/03/2017 10:57 GMT | Updated 09/03/2017 17:37 GMT

Mbeki Denies That South Africans Are Xenophobic. But One African Ambassador Begged To Differ.

Most of the attacks described as xenophobia are "common township thuggery".

Former president Thabo Mbeki is still refusing to accept that South Africans are xenophobic, despite at least three major outbreaks of attacks against foreigners on home soil since he denied this the first time -- in 2007.

Mbeki evoked the ire of some African ambassadors when he told a gathering of high-level African leaders in Johannesburg that the recent attacks against foreigners in South Africa were about crime, not xenophobia.

"To attach this label, 'xenophobic', results in many instances of us not understanding this issue, to understand what is the source of this issue."

"I'm really trying to discourage this idea that there's an African population in South Africa that hates other Africans. That population doesn't exist," he said to applause of some of the delegates at the gathering. "There are instances of this violence that we need to understand."

He said many of these attacks were due to crime, including the incident where Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole was stabbed and it was splashed on the front page of the Sunday Times as a xenophobic attack. Mbeki said there was a fight about cigarettes, which amounted to the murder being "common township thuggery".

Mbeki said there were almost 45,000 Ethiopians in Johannesburg, as well as Nigerian academics and doctors, yet there were no reports of attacks against all of them.

He said South Africans didn't attack people purely because they were foreigners, but there was also an element of crime involved.

But Zambia's High Commissioner Emmanuel Mwamba angrily retorted that foreigners, including Zambians, were treated differently every day by police, and even at schools where they were required to produce permits.

"Xenophobia and Afrophobia should be condemned very strongly like apartheid," he said.

Mbeki afterwards relented and said "if the [African] ambassadors think it's xenophobia, maybe it is".

Mbeki asked the dean of the diplomatic corps in Pretoria, Democratic Republic of Congo ambassador Bene M'Poko, to set up a meeting between him and other African ambassadors to discuss the matter.

"I would like us to meet because it could be that you will teach me something I don't know about my own people," he said, to laughter from some people in the audience. "I will learn something that I don't know about myself. Xenophobia, crime, racism is bad."

Mbeki was speaking at a gathering that marked the 14th birthday of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), one of his brain children. South Africa's APRM report in 2007 warned of possible xenophobic attacks in South Africa, but Mbeki even then denied that South Africans were xenophobic. The report also warned about a crime problem in South Africa, which Mbeki similarly denied.

The year after this the first major outbreak of violence against foreigners started.