Jenni Evans | Johannesburg, South Africa

New arrival: Former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (left) is greeted by South African President Thabo Mbeki upon Aristide’s arrival at Johannesburg International airport on Monday. Aristide was given a warm welcome by Mbeki as he and his family arrived to take up temporary asylum. (Alexander Joe, AFP)

Former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide began his stay in South Africa on Monday by thanking his hosts in Zulu for allowing him and his family to enter the country.

“Siyabonga,” said Aristide, who left Haiti in February amid growing civil unrest and opposition to his rule.

Earlier President Thabo Mbeki and a host of government ministers and diplomats gave him a high-powered, red-carpet welcome as they lined up on the tarmac of Johannesburg International airport to greet him.

He and his wife, Mildred, slowly made their way down the line, which included Minister of Defence Mosiuoa Lekota, Minister of Transport Jeff Radebe and Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, while his two small daughters, clutching little handbags, were quietly led away.

Before being whisked off to a press conference, Aristide walked over to greet a crowd of vuvuzela-blowing African National Congress supporters, who cheered in delight.

Mbeki said to Aristide: “Welcome, indeed, to the African continent and to South Africa.”

In a quiet voice Aristide said that he and his family were grateful for the opportunity to thank Mbeki, the government and the people of South Africa for “a new unforgettable chapter in African history”.

“Instead of Europe, we are welcome in Africa, our mother continent,” he said.

He said peace and stability must be restored in Haiti.

Aristide flew in from Jamaica, where he was living until he could find a country to accept him and his family.

Meanwhile, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad said in a statement on Monday that the Cabinet had received a formal request from the Caribbean Community (Caricom) through the chairperson of the African Union, Mozambique President Joachim Chissano, for South Africa to accommodate Aristide.

“The South African government has acceded to this request, in consultation with the AU, Caricom, the United States and France, to contribute to the international effort to bring peace and stability in Haiti,” said Pahad.

In March, South Africa called for a United Nations-led probe into the circumstances leading to Aristide’s departure, saying “the suggestion that President Aristide may have been forced out of office, if true, will have serious consequences and ramifications for the respect of the rule of law and democracy the world over”.

South Africa agreed to give Aristide temporary asylum “until his personal situation normalises” and he can return to Haiti. An interim government, however, has been installed and fresh elections are expected next year.

Mbeki was the only head of state to attend the bicentennial celebrations in Port-au-Prince over the new year — marking Haiti’s birth as the world’s first black republic, when slaves successfully rose up against French rule in 1804.

South Africa gave Haiti R10-million towards the cost of the celebrations, a move that was trenchantly criticised by South African opposition parties as a waste of public funds.

The former priest — who was first elected in 1990, then ousted in a coup in 1991 only to return to power with US military backing in 1994 — had said from the outset that he wanted to come to South Africa. — Sapa