Gatvol Zuma turns on African leaders

Police and defence force soldiers check identity documents in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, an area mostly inhabited by foreigners, in the wake of the recent xenophobic violence. (Mujahid Safodien, AFP)

Police and defence force soldiers check identity documents in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, an area mostly inhabited by foreigners, in the wake of the recent xenophobic violence. (Mujahid Safodien, AFP)

Following a week of fierce diplomatic exchanges, the hardened attitude of a “gatvol” President Jacob Zuma and his Cabinet towards illegal immigrants is: don’t kill them but deport them, shut them out at South African borders and confine refugees to camps.

Searches and deportations of illegal immigrants are likely to be a daily occurrence and government sources say the expected costs justify the end.

The clampdown on illegal immigrations – triggered largely by the diplomatic fallout between South Africa and some African countries – will see soldiers mobilised into action.

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said on Wednesday it had started redeploying the army to the borders before the recent xenophobic attacks.

“Our deployment, as mentioned by the commander in chief [Zuma], is just to reinforce the systems that have been there,” said SANDF spokesperson Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga. “Some of the modalities of those issues are still being worked out.”

‘Gatvol’ and ‘irritated’
Although some leaders in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Nigeria want South Africa to explain its treatment of foreigners within its borders following the recent xenophobic attacks, Zuma is “gatvol” and “irritated” with his continental colleagues who – according to senior aides – seem to be shirking their responsibilities.

The consequence of the presidential irritation, a senior diplomatic source said, is increased deportation to rid the country of its illegal immigrant burden, tightening border security by sending in the troops, frequent raids and a “no more Mr Nice Guy” diplomatic attitude.

On the one hand, South Africa is trying to quell internal anger from some of its citizens who believe that foreigners are taking their jobs. On the other, the government is treading carefully to ensure that its toughened stance doesn’t fuel an already tense xenophobic atmosphere.

Seven people, including South Africans, were killed after xenophobic eruptions that some allege were sparked by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s recent statement that foreigners must pack and go.

This week Pretoria was irked by Nigeria recalling its high commissioner, even though Abuja subsequently recanted, and by Malawi accusing South Africa of ill-treating its citizens. Furthermore, there was unease over Zimbabwe’s angry statement that 4 000 prisoners in South African jails were Zimbabweans.

Public anger
It seems Zuma’s public anger during Monday’s celebrations marking 21 years of freedom and democracy added fuel to the diplomatic conflagrations.

The latest attack came from Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Moyo on Twitter. “Sad Zuma failed to condemn xenophobia outright. SADC cheap labour built SA economy & region bore brunt of apartheid!” Moyo tweeted.

He labelled Zuma “xenophobic” for asking why refugees flee to South Africa: “Zuma’s assertion today [Monday] that ‘brother countries’ in Africa contribute to xenophobia by having their citizens in SA is flabbergasting!”

International relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela said South Africa would “not engage minister Moyo through the media. We will use diplomatic channels if there are matters we seek to raise.” 

Malawi, through its information minister, Kondwani Nankhumwa, said it is discussing joint measures against Pretoria with the African Union and other SADC states.

“Our message to the government of South Africa is clear: protect other nationals or expect trade repercussions, as we cannot continue discussing regional trade integration with a country where our citizens and our trade partners are being attacked,” Nankhumwa was reported as saying on a Malawian news website.

Gloves-off approach
Such messages led to what appears to be a diplomatic gloves-off approach this week. A diplomatic source said that, although everyone is quick to criticise Pretoria, no one is offering a solution. “The problem starts with the sending country,” said the source. “For most of these countries, the problems are political and economic.

“The second culprits are the transit countries, which are happy to allow the migrants through because they don’t want to take care of them. Somalis, for instance, come through Tanzania, but that country won’t stop them because it doesn’t want to have that extra responsibility.”

A Cabinet minister told the Mail & Guardian that governments such as Nigeria, Malawi and Zimbabwe have tried to get the Zuma administration to take responsibility for the xenophobic attacks.

The minister, who did not want his comments attributed, said Pretoria believes there is a misinformation campaign in other countries. “They’re painting a bad picture,” he said.

South Africa’s intelligence operatives are said to have warned the country to “prepare for another influx of Zimbabweans because of the continuing economic meltdown in that country”.

Tighter borders
A senior government official close to the situation, who is not authorised to speak to the media, used the word “irritated” to describe Zuma’s attitude. Last week Zuma held a five-hour meeting with representatives of migrants from different countries, who are “putting pressure on us”.

As a result, South Africa has begun tightening its borders, reinforcing the deployment of soldiers at all points of entry. Law enforcement agencies will also continue their raids to find and deport illegal immigrants daily.

It doesn’t seem this tough stance will affect legal immigrants, but refugees seeking asylum will be confined to camps. One official said this is designed to make life uncomfortable for those thinking of heading south, but it could well be construed by human rights watchers as a violation of international conventions.

“If we put refugees in camps, it will discourage others who are considering coming here,” said the diplomatic source.

Though South Africa acknowledges that the costs of deportations and keeping refugees in camps would strain its purse, sources said the government is prepared to sacrifice that money to reduce the number of migrants choosing the country as a destination.

Costly deportations
In 2013 the government spent about R90-million a year on sending illegal immigrants back to their countries, mostly to Zimbabwe.

Some African countries have suggested that the matter should be discussed with SADC and the AU, the government source said, but Zuma believes he is “being threatened” by these countries. The diplomatic source said the president enjoyed the full backing of his Cabinet for Monday’s speech.

“There is no single African country that can point a finger at South Africa while they themselves are failing to take care of their own people. Our social security network is burdened. Some commit crime and cannot be found because they are not documented,” the source said.

“The bulk of Zuma’s speech was directed at [outgoing Nigerian President] Goodluck Jonathan. We are happy to see him go.”

South Africa and Nigeria have had a tense relationship throughout Jonathan’s term of office.

Advance warning
To maintain good relations with president-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s incoming government, South Africa gave him advance warning before releasing its statement condemning Nigeria’s decision to recall its high commissioner in the wake of the latest wave of xenophobic attacks.

“Buhari understands. We had to warn him and say: ‘Don’t be alarmed.’ We are still going to work well with him,” said the diplomatic source.

Zuma will attend Buhari’s inauguration on May 29.

On Tuesday Jeff Radebe, the head of the interministerial committee on migration, distanced the government from the department of international relations’ hard-hitting statement on Nigeria.

But Monyela told the M&G that “the presidency will issue a statement confirming that government stands by the statement issued by [the department] on Sunday”. The statement supporting this stance was not yet out by the time the M&G newspaper went to print.

‘Underlying causes of tension’
The interministerial committee on migration, set up by Zuma, told the media this week that its mandate has been broadened to deal with “all the underlying causes of the tensions between communities and the foreign nationals”.

Radebe said his committee would address the implementation of the laws that govern business licences, border management and migration policies through Operation Fiela-Reclaim. Its focus will be on illicit drugs, contraband, undocumented migrants, illegal and unlicensed weapons, human trafficking and prostitution, hijacked and condemned buildings, as well as the management of government-issued RDP houses that people claim are being occupied by foreigners.

When asked for comment, presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj referred the M&G to Radebe, who was in a Cabinet meeting. Committee spokesperson Phumla Williams had not responded to messages by the time of the M&G newspaper going to print.

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice.
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