by Zaheera Jinnah and Alexandra Hiropoulos
The ongoing unrest and violence in South Africa’s urban areas and townships emphasises, once again, the breakdown in the rule of law. As has often been the case in post-apartheid South Africa, protests and community anger have been mobilised against the outsider, the black foreigner who is the target of wrath and fury. But this round of violence goes deeper, revealing fractures and issues of credibility in elected political leadership.
As officials oscillate between stoking xenophobic sentiments and denialism, the community protests, violence and response by authorities point to a deeper underlying problem; a breakdown in law and those tasked with upholding it. South Africa is in the midst of its most severe crisis since 1994, dogged by factional politics, led by a president who lacks legitimacy especially in urban areas, and bearing the brunt of high crime and economic and social inequalities that continue to divide and define communities.
The current xenophobic attacks in Gauteng that have led to 3 reported deaths so far and at least 100 incidents of looting, assaults and displacement are revealing of the inefficiency of the police force. Our research in urban communities across South Africa repeatedly shows that communities, especially poor black communities where the majority of migrants live and work, have a tense and untrusting relationship with the police.
During the attacks on 11 February in Rosettenville, south of Johannesburg, where residents blamed Nigerians for criminal activity in the area (including running brothels and drug dens) and set fire to 12 homes, residents claimed police were complicit in the crimes, took bribes and were among sex workers’ clients.
Increasingly, the response of police to their evident inability to combat high levels of crime has been to blame foreign nationals for crime and to target them for arrest and deportation. After the crime statistics for 2015 were released and the South African Police Service (SAPS) had to explain another year of rising crime, both the Minister of Police and the National Police Commissioner blamed South Africa’s rising crime on foreign nationals in statements to parliament. These claims were never substantiated.
A few months prior, after large-scale xenophobic attacks in June 2015, the government set Operation Fiela in place (meaning ‘to sweep clean’ in Sesotho) supposedly to protect foreign nationals. Soon after, Fiela turned into a general ‘crime-fighting initiative’ that involved sweeping arrests of over 40,000 individuals between April and December 2015 alone. Targeting mostly foreign nationals, the SAPS conducted night raids across the country along with the South African Defence Force and the Department of Home Affairs. These raids frequently involved heavy-handed policing and the lining up of foreign nationals on streets of communities for all to see. By the end of 2015, over 15,000 migrants had been “repatriated” by the South African government.
During his first 100 days in office statements in December 2016, Johannesburg Mayor Mashaba said in relation to crime and migration, “They’re holding our country to ransom and I’m going to be the last South African to allow it. I’ve got constrains as local government, because the national government has opened our borders to criminality.” He said he will target those living in the city illegally and involved in criminal activity.
In response to attacks against foreign nationals that began on 5 February in Rosettenville, Mashaba said the city was already setting up a specialised JMPD task team to conduct regular raids on alleged drug dens. Mashaba is also creating municipal courts to deal with by-law issues that will have their own prosecutors and magistrates who will not fall under the National Prosecuting Authority. The constitutionality of these initiatives is questionable.
So far, 136 arrests have been reported in relation to the events of February 24 in and around Pretoria city centre where a group of residents staged an ‘anti-illegal immigrant’ demonstration. Though no official figures for the reasons of arrest have been given, the majority of arrests do not seem to be for crimes such as assaults, arson or damage to property but for lack of official documentation.
The inefficiency, corruption and brutality of the police force are well documented in South Africa. In the recent events we have witnessed how police apathy, or direct involvement in crime, are at the heart of the problem. Threats and attacks on foreign nationals are ignored, cases left unattended and investigations falter. In the absence of the police maintaining the rule of law, it is unsurprising that communities adopt both vigilantism in upholding the law and a boldness to break it at the same time. In a time when reactionary forms of identity politics are central in public discourses globally, the xenophobia and official responses to it in South Africa show an emboldened call to differentiate, divide and scapegoat. Many South Africans who organised the February 24th protest cited Trumps’ views on migration as further justification for their position.
And as with migration politics in the US and the EU, it is clear that the South African government is not dealing with the issues at the root of these protests and attacks. The state – including politicians, police officers and officials of various kinds – is directly invested in the scapegoating of migrants to mask its own failures. The result is a toxic and dangerous complicity between the state and popular actors.
Photo: 23 April 2015, Johannesburg. Thousands of people marched through the streets of Johannesburg to protest against the recent xenophobic attacks. © Daylin Paul 2015