Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon considers a tale of two cities during, 2015,  Johannesburg’s year of hostility and hospitality when foreign nationals from Africa bore the brunt of xenophobic attacks from South African and their state

As the rhetoric of the “refugee crisis” was raising global alarm, 2015 was a year in which South Africa’s attitude towards cross-border migrants and asylum seekers was as contradictory as ever. The country witnessed the resurgence of xenophobic violence, and while the state vacillated between its role as a protector and persecutor, its towns and cities became both spaces of refugee and hope, and of terror.

The city of Johannesburg perhaps exemplified these paradoxes – echoing with competing calls of hospitality and hostility.

The city witnessed, once again, disenchanted crowds looting its streets and targeting the stores of non-South Africans, but it also saw thousands marching against xenophobia and a rapid police response. Its streets and inner-city buildings saw a display of un-precedent solidarity with non-nationals and the mayor’s swift and public denunciation of xenophobic violence, but almost in the same moment, the military was rounding up migrants for deportation.

Over the course of 2015, I attempted to trace the ways in which immigration policing became enfolded into the lives of inner-city residents: I found its effect was to produce fear rather than solidarity, and further marginalise migrants from engagement with the police.  The militarised response to the xenophobic violence — particularly under Operation Fiela, which targeted many undocumented migrants as part of an anti-crime initiative — eclipsed the political overtures of protection and hospitality. Deportation — costly and ineffective — became the over-riding solution to the complex social issues which migration raises.

How is one to understand the unfolding of these competing forces?

Renewed Xenophobic Violence

Let us return for a moment to the second week of April 2015. Anti-immigrant violence in KwaZulu Natal led to at least five deaths and the displacement of over 9000 people. Fears of recurring violence in Johannesburg began circulating, as did police helicopters over the city, as well as a procession of rumours, threats, macabre images, half-truths and half lies on social media.

On the evening of Wednesday, 15th April, I was told by two independent sources in Jeppestown — an area in the post-industrial South of Johannesburg proliferating with car repair workshops, second hand clothes stores, and derelict hostels — that they had been warned that attacks on ‘foreigners’ were imminent. That evening a crowd gathered at around 6pm in John Page Street in Jeppestown, and in the following days there were continual rounds of looting of foreign-owned stores including the burning of a garage.

I spoke to several witnesses of the events. One Zimbabwean man called Pedzisayi (pseudonym), told me: ‘”They were planning this. I saw groups on the street talking about it.” When the violence broke out, Pedzisayi hid in the darkness of his room above one of the stores on Juta Street and watched the events. He told me that crowds gathered and dispersed as they were being chased by police cars like “birds in a field.”

According to witnesses, the looters came from the ‘hostels’, built by the apartheid government for black ‘migrant’ workers in the south of the city. The hostels are primarily, though not exclusively, occupied by South Africans and were also spaces where xenophobic violence in 2008 was organised. But neighbours and residents living in the Jeppe area also joined in the looting.

A Bangladeshi shopkeeper, and asylum seeker, recounted to me his terror at the situation, as a group attempted to break into his shop. “At around 10 pm,” he said, “I was inside the shop.” He heard the banging of shutters and singing and went to see what was going on. “I saw 400 or 500 people, trying to break the gate. I called the police and they came in 5 to 10 minutes. I was inside the shop. I was very scared, sometimes people can kill you. I called God.”

He recounted that the police fired on the group with rubber bullets and they dispersed. The next day, he packed his stock and tried to leave the shop, but a smaller group tried to steal it from him when he was loading it into his uncle’s bakkie. He kept the shop closed for five days. His customers’ and neighbours’ responses to the violence were mixed: “When I was leaving, some said ‘I’m sorry, I feel shame for this.’ Others said this is South Africa, we don’t want makhula”.

A Nigerian man who owns a DVD store reported that the Nigerian community closed stores and gathered together to protect themselves. He told me, “You fear for your children. They can put a firebomb.” He too reported that the police response chased away the crowd. “If they did not come the way they came; things would have been lost”.

For others though the response was not quick enough, and some stores were entirely looted. One Bangladeshi-owned store, for instance, was completely cleared out.

That weekend, in Alexandra, Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole was murdered over a dispute over a cigarette. The event, shocking as it was — and photographed by The Sunday Times [1]— remained isolated, and the murderers were later prosecuted. The looting in the city was contained after several days and there were no further deaths.

At a city level, the events were monitored and responded by the mayor’s office, in collaboration with metropolitan and national police. According to Thabo Rangwaga, spokesperson for Public Safety, City of Johannesburg, the response to the violence in the Jeppe area involved both national and metropolitan police: “We worked in conjunction with SAPS. We were relying on leads from all stakeholders, media, officers on the ground, and we had areas ear-marked as hotspots which were put under surveillance, Jeppe, Wanderers, some parts of Yeoville, and some parts of Hillbrow.”

He considers the operation a success, explaining that ”we drove a number of campaigns together with media to drive the message home about our sentiments as a ruling party and as government, that finally, we saw the end of those attacks and a return to normalcy.”

The African National Congress (ANC) executive mayor of Johannesburg Mpho Parks Tau’s response to the violence was immediate and very public. He spoke at a march against xenophobia in which thousands walked through the streets towards Mary Fitzgerald square. In the months that followed he appeared on billboards along the highway in an anti-xenophobia campaign, and the issue of migration played a key role in Tau’s State of the City address in early May, following the violence.

There, Tau argued that “migrants who come here to work, to play fair, to build businesses and offer services are unambiguously good for this city. As long as access is fair, by-laws are observed and enforcement of rules is consistent, none have any cause to claim that the energies and efforts of our new arrivals damage our economy or our society.”[2]

The police and political response to the violence showed that with an early and coordinated response to threats, along with political leadership, violence could be contained.

And yet there were contradictions in the response. For while the police provided effective protection when the threat of violence occurred, many migrants in the city fear them as much as they fear xenophobic violence. What followed the anti-immigrant attacks was all the more unsettling —  the military were deployed in the streets of Johannesburg and elsewhere and began rounding up undocumented migrants for deportation.


Legalise It

Operation Fiela

Only two days after Tau’s address, in the early morning hours of Friday, the 8th May, when the city is mostly quiet, save for occasional passing car, fight or the music of a tavern, the sleep of those taking refuge in the Central Methodist Mission (CMM) in the inner-city was disturbed by the footsteps of soldiers and police.  The CMM had, under its previous leader Bishop Paul Verryn, become one of the primary spaces of refuge for migrants and asylum seekers in the city, hosting thousands over the previous decade. Although new church leadership in 2015 had wanted those resident to leave, hundreds still remained living in the church.

According to witnesses, the police brashly woke the sleepers while soldiers looked on. Over 200 hundred migrants were hurried into the church’s entry hall and taken to Johannesburg’s Central Police station, still known by its ominous apartheid era name — John Vorster Square. Most of them were later sent to Lindela Detention Centre for deportation, although some considered vulnerable, mothers with young children and the disabled, were released.

The raid that effectively closed the CMM as a space of shelter for migrants and asylum seekers. It was part of nation-wide Operation Fiela – Reclaim, which is still continuing, and which was launched by the country’s national government, and president Jacob Zuma, leader of the ANC.

Although the operation has encompassed a broad array of anti-crime initiatives and led by the South African Police Services, it is supported by the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC)  on Migration appointed by Zuma to deal with the xenophobic violence.  The operation invoked presidential powers to use the army.

‘Fiela’ is a Sesotho word for sweeping dirt. Richard Poplak, who wrote about the CMM raid for the Daily Maverick, noted that the term Fiela, “recalls—perhaps deliberately?—Operation Murambatsvina (Shona for “clean out the rubbish”).”[3] Whether deliberate or not, the parallels reflect the experiences of some of those affected by the raids.

Oliver’s (pseudonym) story is one of several forced displacements: Murambatsvina, the xenophobic attacks of 2008, deportation and the CMM raid.

On the night of the raid in May 2015, Oliver who had lived in the CMM for several years hid in the darkness, evaded capture deportation, though he fled the church soon after. The event recalled to him a time almost a decade before in the Zimbabwean midlands when his family home had been destroyed by bulldozers in Operation Murambatsvina. It was the destruction of his home that made him decide to leave for South Africa.

“It was the same, there was no difference, we were left homeless like what was done in Zimbabwe” he told me a few months later in an inner-city workshop where he worked as a tailor, stitching together the bright fabrics and wax-cloth.

Oliver believes that the government of South Africa should “provide South Africans with proper services: they are crying for jobs, they are crying for money … They must cater them first, rather than beating some people who are beggars. Like me I am not taking anyone’s job. Rather I am teaching people to do sewing and embroidery.”

His story is one of continued dispossessions. During the widespread anti-immigrant violence of May 2008, Oliver was forced to flee to his hostel room Southern outskirts of the city. He took refuge in the CMM but was deported later that year after being arrested by police on his way to pray on the mountainside in Yeoville. But back in Zimbabwe, he immediately crossed the border into South Africa again.

Oliver’s story is common and many of those arrested and deported in the raid on CMM have, according to him and others I interviewed, come back to South Africa. The borders remain extremely porous, and there are many ways to cross—by paying gangs that ferry people through the bush, or paying corrupt border officials. For those who manage to obtain passports, they simply cross the border without the need for a visa.

Like many other cross-border migrants I spoke to, Oliver fears to turn to the police whom he does not trust – for fear of deportation, being harassed or extorted for bribes.

Another story illustrates that this fear is founded. In early April, a few weeks prior to the outbreak of violence, I met another Zimbabwean Jeremiah (pseudonym). Jeremiah had recently re-crossed the border from Zimbabwe after being deported for the second time. He had been arrested, ironically, while reporting a fight to the police that had broken out in a shebeen in the unlawfully occupied building in which he lived — for having no legal documentation.  Many of his neighbours who lived informally, subject to repeated police and immigration raids, fear going to the police. Jeremiah stayed in the local police station for two weeks, before being taken to Lindela and being deported.

After being deported, Jeremiah claims that he was left with Zimbabwean police who told him that he was free to go back to his village, though there was no transport. He slept three days in the BeitBridge taxi rank for three days and  a phone to call his wife who sent him money. With money in his pocket,  through a remittance service. Once he had money he walked back across the border, paying R20 to Zimbabwean border officials and R100 to South Africans.  Such stories I have found commonplace, and put in question in the efficacy of the money, never mind ethics, of deportation.

The costs of South Africa’s deportation system are vast. I could not trace operation costs for 2015, but in February 2014 the Minister of Home Affairs confirmed — in response to a parliamentary questions posed by the Democratic Alliance in 2013 — that the costs for deportation at the Lindela Repatriation Centre was marginally under R200 million, which doesn’t include the cost of police time, another several hundreds of millions of rands.[4]

Many asylum seekers also become undocumented due to the difficulties of remaining in the system. The over-burdened, and under-staffed, asylum system creates numerous chances for corruption. A recent report by the African Centre for Migration & Society and LHR found that “significant levels of corruption involving multiple actors, occurring at all stages of the asylum process, and continuing even after an individual had obtained refugee status.”[5] This raises the question of why so much emphasis is being placed on deportation rather than reforming the asylum system, and why programmes like Fiela are considered an effective response to xenophobia.

2015-04-23 05.24.56

The CMM raid provoked an outburst of criticism and a legal challenge by Lawyers for Human Rights against Fiela. Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) has a dedicated unit for refugee and migrant rights. According to their records, 234 were arrested to be deported at the CMM, though witness accounts point to a much higher number.

David Cote, coordinator of strategic litigation unit at LHR, said that they thought it odd that “the inter-ministerial committee on migration that had come up with Fiela as a means of reacting to the xenophobic violence and one of the main targets of that has been foreign nationals without documentation.” According to Cote, it was an odd reaction on behalf of a committee that is supposed to stop violence to position foreign nationals as criminals.

Cote also shared that LHR were denied access to those in police custody and later at Lindela, even after obtaining a court order and a list of names. They were finally allowed to speak to them, but only to five people at a time.  Others were deported in the meantime.

A key concern around Fiela is the legal context in which the police raids took place. The raids under Fiela invoked section 13(7) of the South African Police Service Act of 1995 that states that “the National of Provincial Commissioner may, where it is reasonable in the circumstances to restore public order or to ensure the safety of the public in a particular area, in writing authorise that particular area or any part thereof to be cordoned off.” [6]

The use of this section allows police to bypass a search warrant and enter the homes of people, eliminating the need of prima facie evidence of criminal involvement. It de facto allows for entire zones to be targets of police action. LHR are arguing that there has to be public disorder of a significant scale to justify this measure. And in the middle of the night, when most of those arrested slept, what could have been this disorder? LHR also argue that the raids on homes are not legal without a court warrant.

The outcomes of the legal action were still pending at the time of writing, but Fiela also raises deeper questions about South Africa’s migration policy and whether it even serves the aims of public safety or exacerbates the opposite effect instead.

The national government has argued that the raids are not specifically targeting undocumented migrants, but criminality more widely. In early September 2015, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe who chairs the inter-ministerial committee on migration reported in a press conference that 9,968 people were arrested during Operation Fiela for an array of crimes. But during the same period, 15,000 migrants were also “repatriated,” mostly voluntarily, according to Radebe. In fact, South Africa has one of the largest deportation systems in the world and deported 54,169 people in the 2014/2015 financial year, according to the Home Affairs annual report[7].

But even while the mandate of Operation Fiela remains wide-ranging, it is clear that the government still views it as an effective response to xenophobic violence. The parliamentary report of the Ad Hoc Joint Committee on Probing Violence Against Foreign Nationals, dated 19 November 2015, recommended that “government through the work of institutions such as the IMC on Migration, and such bodies at a provincial level, should continue to monitor, pre-empt and protect vulnerable communities. Operations such as Fiela should be supported until such time as the root socio-economic causes of violent attacks are addressed.” [8]

But the logic of this claim, the costs of Fiela, migration policing and deportation more generally remain unaddressed. In particular, does the militarised focus on large-scale raids not undermine the goals of community-based policing?

According to Rangwaga, “at a political level the mayor’s vision is to see a metro police department that is more entrenched in communities. From a public safety point of view we want to see a demilitarized type of policing that understands the cultural and social dynamics of the areas within which it operates, the type of policing that is partnership-driven from the stakeholders perspective, i.e. private sector, faith-based organizations, organised structures as well as communities at large and working together to address common problems.”

Even though the operation is driven at a national level, the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) has been working in conjunction with the SAPS. I asked Rangwaga whether Fiela’s militarised approach did not contradict the aim for demilitarised, community-based policing.

He replied that “where we see a response to challenges on the ground being somewhat draconian, we advise accordingly, including using less intense measures depending on the environmental and people dynamics, but if the problem is deemed to be of such a serious nature that a more militarised approach has to be implemented, then its something that is usually justified within reason and we try as much as possible to not over-react unnecessarily but react adequately.”

However, as the stories above suggest that programmes like Fiela, and continuing deportations, risk worsening public safety by alienating large numbers of residents in places like Johannesburg from police services, and creating fear among them. In doing so they risk undermining community-oriented measures for public safety, the political response to xenophobia, and marginalising sources of collaboration and intelligence against violent crime and early response mechanisms for group violence. They also risk — fundamentally — militarising our cities and re-invoking apartheid era states of emergency.

The story of Johannesburg’s response to xenophobia in 2015, is one of two cities — one a place of refuge, the other of expulsion; one a space of solicitude and solidarity, the other of stigma. 2016 will be a significant year to see how, and if, these cities will continue to co-exist.


Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society. The interviews around Operation Fiela were assisted by Wellington Mukwamba. The views expressed in this article are, however, his own.

Photographs of the anti-xenophobia march taken by Adriana Miranda Da Cunha, who is a PHD Candidate at the Santa Cantarina State University, Brazil, an arts educator, gender activist and curator of the Brazil-South Africa Documentary Festival. She writes on the blog


Photographs at the Central Methodist Church taken by Olivia Shihambe who is a photographer based in Pretoria. She obtained a BA in Fine Art from Wits in 2013. Her work primarily looks at urban landscapes and living spaces and seeks to speak to elements of ephemerality within the structures around us, in connection with the seemingly fixed sets of memories we create in and about them.





[4] A 2007 report by Darshan Vigneswaran and Marguerite Duponchel found that  “Our conservative estimate is that SAPS Gauteng spends approximately R 350 million per annum on immigration policing.”







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