While ANC secretary general Ace Magashule described the ongoing spate of violent protests in parts of the country as criminality - not xenophobia - he warned that "anti-revolutionaries" were using tribalism to pit Africans against one another.
The protests have mainly affected parts of Gauteng.
Magashule shared his thoughts at a SA Students Congress (Sasco) elections rally at Tshwane University of Technology on Wednesday. The student representative council elections are expected to take place on Thursday.
In his address, which was filled with song and met with rapturous applause, he cautioned South Africans against turning on their fellow African brothers and sisters.
"You are South Africans but remember, you are Africans, living in a continent called Africa. Never despise people who have the same skin colour [as] us," Magashule said.
He questioned why the idea of a "foreigner" never applied to white people.
"There are many others with a whitish colour. You don't know them. They are there. You see them all the time but you can't say this one ke le kwerekwere ," Magashule said, using the derogatory term for African foreign nationals.
"They have never been attacked because they are also so-called foreigners but because their colour is white," he added as students applauded.
Magashule said that once the continent united and solidified its relationship with other Brics countries, such as Russia, India, China and Brazil, it would mean standing up on their own and never having to go ask for an International Monetary Fund bailout or having to "beg the USA".
"Imperialist forces, racist forces, fascist forces don't want Africa united."
"They must not divide us. They have succeeded to divide the ANC," Magashule went on as he urged the students to fight for their ideals and not to become rich.
Speaking to journalists after his address, Magashule said his reference to anti-revolutionaries was aimed at those who never wanted to see the ANC in power or united.
"I am just saying it's a real thing. That's why we are pleading, talking to structures on the ground and leaders at different levels saying: 'Let's unite,'" he said.
"If we are united, then Africa will be united, as the oldest liberation movement," he added.