South Africa Jewish Groups Lash Out at 'Racist' Mugabe

South African Jewish groups branded Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe a racist Monday after he accused them of trying to wrest control of Zimbabwe's industries.

"Jews in South Africa, working in cahoots with their colleagues here, want our textile and clothing factories... to close down," Mugabe said in comments reported in Zimbabwe on the state-owned Herald newspaper's Web site.

Mugabe was reported to have said during a visit Friday to a textile factory in the southern city of Bulawayo that South African Jews saw Zimbabwe simply as a "warehouse" that could create business for their companies.

Jewish groups called the remarks racist and anti-Semitic, saying that Jewish business operators in Zimbabwe were doing their best to survive in increasingly difficult circumstances.

"It's just way out of line. Why single out such a small group?" said African Jewish Congress President Mervyn Smith. "This is a blatant example of racism and anti-Semitism, not to mention sheer malevolent conspiracy theorising," he said.

Smith said there were around 100,000 Jews in South Africa and probably no more than 1,000 in Zimbabwe. The vast majority of these were white, Smith said.

The national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Russell Gaddin, said Jewish businesses in Zimbabwe were battling to keep their businesses afloat despite a growing political and economic crisis.

"I think Mugabe is a man who knows he's got his back against the wall and that by using whites, or Jews as synonyms of whites, he thinks he'll garner more support," Gaddin said. "But I'm not sure who in the world takes President Mugabe seriously any more."

Zimbabwe is struggling through its third consecutive year of recession, with unemployment at more than 50 percent and inflation running above 70 percent.

Officials say nearly 700 companies have shut down in the last 18 months as industries struggle with chronic shortages of fuel and foreign exchange.

Zimbabwe's economic ills have worsened since pro-government militants began invading commercial farms in February 2000 in support of Mugabe's programme to redistribute white-owned farmland to poor blacks.