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Mail & Guardian Online reporter and Sapa, Sapa-AFP20 May 2008 16:56
As police announced the launch of “specialised units” to combat the deadly xenophobic violence in Gauteng and the National Intelligence Agency confirmed that it was probing the violence, President Thabo Mbeki’s government on Tuesday stood accused of serious policy failures that “created a tinderbox of unmet expectations which exploded in Alexandra”.
The violence has so far claimed 24 lives and left up to 10Ã¯Â¿Â½000 people seeking refuge in shelters across Gauteng. By midday on Tuesday, 297 people had been arrested in relation to the unrest.
The extreme unrest is a direct response to failures by Mbeki’s government, the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) said.
In a scathing indictment on Mbeki’s past 10 years of rule, the institute listed crime, inadequate border control, unemployment, education and corruption as some of the key areas where the government had failed.
Fierce attacks on foreigners started in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, just more than a week ago and have since spread to several other townships in the province—including Zamimpilo in Riverlea, Diepsloot and Kya Sands to the west of Johannesburg, and Ramaphosa and Makause in the east, as well as Tembisa and Thokoza—as well as the Johannesburg CBD.
South African citizens have also been targeted in the attacks, with Shangaans, Pedis and other groups assaulted.
“Essentially these [government] failures contributed to create a perfect storm of lawlessness, poverty, and unfulfilled expectations, which has now erupted into violence,” the SAIRR said in a statement, adding that the government’s failure to bring the high levels of violent crime under control had contributed to an environment where people resorted “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,” it said.
Incompetence in the Safety and Security Ministry and corruption in the police as well as affirmative action had diminished the capacity of the police to ensure a safe environment in the country.
“Warnings to this effect from a variety of sources had been largely ignored or treated with arrogance and contempt from the office of the minister of safety and security downwards,” the institute said.
“That not a single minister or deputy minister responsible for law and order, justice, or prisons was dismissed over close on 10 years of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency suggests that the government was either unable to identify the risks presented by lawlessness or had resigned itself to the consequences.”
The collapse of border-control mechanisms caused millions to enter the country illegally, and poor policy decisions contributed to the large illegal population in the country.
“Without adequate legal standing in the community, these people became easy or soft targets for mob violence. The police’s own heavy-handed raids on illegal immigrants further created the impression that they were fair game in South Africa.”
The SAIRR also cited education as the government’s “biggest failure” and said it was to blame for the country’s high unemployment rate.
“Only 1% of black matriculants achieve a good HG [higher grade] maths pass. The output of the school education system was therefore far from adequate to free households from state dependency or to acquire the skills necessary to find employment in a heavily regulated labour market.”
Authorities act on violence
The National Intelligence Agency is involved in the investigation to uncover the root of the xenophobic violence. Agency spokesperson Lorna Daniels on Tuesday confirmed the involvement of the agency, saying the body is working with the police and other law-enforcement agencies. She did not elaborate further.
Gauteng minister of sport Barbara Creecy—speaking on behalf of community safety minister Firoz Cachalia—at the Gauteng legislature on Tuesday said police had “concrete evidence” of a suspected “third force” involvement in the attacks.
Provincial African National Congress spokesperson Nkenke Kekana said there had to be a “hidden hand” aiming to destabilise communities in the province, which is Southern Africa’s economic hub. The party’s provincial leadership was to receive reports from its branches and members on the ground at a meeting later on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula said “specialised units” would be deployed by police to areas where there had been xenophobic violence. He was speaking while on a visit to Primrose—one of the areas affected by the violence.
“We are going hard on the situation,” he said. The number of police officers will be increased and there will be visible police patrols in areas hit by xenophobic attacks.
The minister told displaced foreign nationals who had gathered at the Primrose police station that no one had the right to harass them.
Gauteng local government minister Qedani Mahlangu said a provincial disaster-management centre would help foreign nationals with arrangements to relocate—if they wish to do so—and provide them with food.
Nqakula said displaced foreign nationals would be relocated to habitable places, adding that police had done their best under the circumstances by opening police stations to provide shelter for the displaced.
Earlier on Tuesday, Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa condemned xenophobic violence in the province, saying top police management would decide on a possible army deployment. “The decision to deploy the army should not be a political decision, but that of senior managers of the police, based on their assessment of the situation and required capacity,” he said.
“We welcome the decision to deploy additional police in affected areas in the province. I hope this will go a long way to bringing the situation under control without having to involve the army.”
Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said the department would not deport any of the foreign nationals, whether documented or not. “South Africa belongs to all who live in it; foreigners have helped to develop the economy of the country—we cannot be seen as attacking people,” she said.
An interministerial task team has been established to monitor the situation in xenophobic hot spots across the province.
The outburst of xenophobic violence could cause serious damage to South Africa’s tourism industry, Environmental and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk warned on Tuesday.
Briefing the media in Cape Town, Van Schalkwyk said tourists from African countries are likely to avoid visiting South Africa. “We are quite concerned about the effects of the attacks on tourism—they have the potential to impact negatively on the [African] market,” he said.
However, he said, the country’s tourism industry would continue to grow.
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