SOUTH AFRICA: The army is called in

Thursday, May 22, 2008
The South African army has been called in to bolster police efforts to end the xenophobic clashes that have gripped the country's richest province.

According to a statement by President Thabo Mbeki's office on 21 May, "[He] has approved a request from the South African Police Service [SAPS] for the involvement of the South African National Defence Force [SANDF] in stopping ongoing attacks on foreign nationals in Gauteng Province."

At least 23 people have died since xenophobic violence erupted 10 days ago in Gauteng; the International Organisation for Migration believes that about 13,000 people have been displaced.

On Wednesday night, the army and the police were in talks finalising details of the deployment.

Meanwhile buses have been provided to take foreign nationals driven out of Primrose, a suburb on the East Rand, to their countries of origin. Having spent the past few nights in the open, Mario Fernando hopes to get on one of them. "We were forced out by the amaZulu and Xhosa people. I will not come back," he said.

Fernando, 34, left his home in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, to join his brother in the Ramaphosa informal settlement on Johannesburg's East Rand, only to "arrive in a war".

After taking refuge at a church in nearby Reiger Park, another informal settlement, and surviving on food donations from South African businesses and individuals following a public appeal, Fernando just wants to go home.

Winnie Bosman, of Reiger Park's Community Crisis Centre, said donations from sympathetic South Africans had flooded in, while "some just drove here and gave us food". She said they were feeding about 5,000 people who had fled violence in the area.

The number of foreign nationals, both legal and illegal, residing in South Africa is estimated at anywhere between one million and 10 million, but around three million are thought to have fled Zimbabwe's imploding economy, where unofficial estimates now put inflation at 1,000,000 percent, with no limit in sight.

No foreign nationals are immune from the effects of the violence and even those residing in Yeoville, an inner-city Johannesburg suburb where foreign nationals are thought to outnumber South Africans, are contemplating leaving.

Ali Ayub, a Malawian who owns a business in Yeoville, told IRIN that people were talking about disinvesting and establishing businesses in neighbouring countries, as "there is big pressure and people feel insecure, and they are thinking: 'I am investing my money here, but will I get it back?'."
He said xenophobia was an undercurrent in South African society, but non-South Africans should accept that they shared some of the blame for the prejudice directed at them by locals; foreigners were wary of employing South Africans, as they felt vulnerable. A South African could tip people off about where money was kept, or inform police about their employer's residence status, Ayub noted.

The blame game

The government believes there are sinister forces at play encouraging the violence, which has seeped into Mpumalanga Province, adjoining Gauteng, after two groceries stores owned by Somalis were torched on 21 May. Some reports cite nearly 500 Somalis as having been killed in xenophobic attacks in South Africa since 1998.

"The response by the South African government to the riots against foreigners ... follows an established pattern," said a statement by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), a Pretoria-based think-tank.

"Having acknowledged the deeply held xenophobia that apartheid inculcated in our society, government's reaction reverts to type in the search for scapegoats and cop-outs. Instead of leadership and engaging with the root causes of social turbulence, unrest and crime, we are in search of a conspiracy, a third hand."

The South African Institute of Race Relations, (SAIRR) a South African policy and research organisation, said in a statement on 20 May that the blame lay with failed government policies and inaction, which had created a perfect storm.

"The government's repeated failures to bring levels of violent crime under control contributed to an environment which saw people resort to violence without fear of arrest or successful prosecution. In failing to maintain the rule of law, the state had conditioned many poor communities to violent behaviour," the SAIRR statement said.

Police corruption, incompetence by the ministry of safety and security, and the poor performance of the prosecuting authorities had combined to "erode the capacity of the police to provide a safe and secure environment in South Africa." Ineffective border controls had allowed millions of people to cross into South Africa and this was further exacerbated by corruption within Home Affairs.

"Thabo Mbeki's quiet diplomacy provided a lifeline to the ailing Zimbabwe regime that kept it in power longer than would otherwise have been the case ... Seen in light of South Africa's inability to secure its borders, our foreign policy on Zimbabwe was destined to have only one effect - the inflow of illegal immigrants," the SAIRR commented.

High unemployment levels, especially among the youth, and the risks of long-term unemployment have been ignored by government. "Labour legislation, hopelessly inappropriate for a largely unskilled workforce, has contributed to keep many mainly black South Africans out of jobs.

"Immigrants were able to secure employment, as these labour policies did not apply to them and they were in many cases able to make a living free from government grants or regulation," the authors of the SAIRR statement pointed out.

"The violence we have experienced over the past week can be directly attributed to a series of policy failures on the part of Thabo Mbeki's government. Warnings to that effect were too easily dismissed by government spokespeople, who accused analysts of racism and 'doom and gloom' scenarios.

"A 'worst possible scenario' has now materialised and requires a more mature and measured response from government. Failing that, we should expect that similar unrest could occur with little warning in any area of South Africa," the SAIRR said.