/ 21 May 2008

Xenophobia: Mbeki gives nod to army

As violent xenophobic clashes that have claimed at least 42 lives spread from Gauteng to Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, President Thabo Mbeki on Wednesday gave the go-ahead for the “involvement” of the military.

“[Mbeki] 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,” his office said in a statement.

SANDF and SAPS operations members were in a planning session on Wednesday night on when to deploy, said Director Sally de Beer, spokesperson in the office of the police national commissioner.

Defence Ministry spokesperson Sam Mkhwanazi said there would be a military presence in the strife-hit areas “as soon as all that needs to be done is complete”.

Asked whether troops would be on the ground by Wednesday night, Mkhwanazi said: “No.”

“There isn’t a specific time, but it will be as soon as possible,” added De Beer.

Mkhwanazi said the Defence Ministry received the request from the SAPS on Tuesday and “complied with due process” in conveying it to the “commander in chief”, Mbeki.

“The president just approved it,” he said.

Forty-two people have been killed and more than 16 000 displaced in Gauteng, police said on Wednesday. Provincial spokesperson Director Govindsamy Mariemuthoo said 400 arrests had been made — among them, four community leaders arrested in Germiston for inciting the community to violence.

However, when asked by the Mail & Guardian Online for a breakdown of the number of deaths, Mariemuthoo refused and replied: “Don’t ask me such a stupid question.”

Xenophobic violence against foreigners — which started in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, last week — has also spread to townships in Mpumalanga, police said.

“It started yesterday [Tuesday] … there were so many people involved. People were burning shacks of foreigners and looting their businesses,” said Constable Sibusiso Mbuli from the scene, adding that the attacks took place in the Leslie and Embalenhle townships, both near Secunda.

“They looted six tuck shops and burnt three. Some belonged to Zimbabweans and some to Somalis. Even now the situation has not stabilised. We see people moving about and when they see police bakkies, they run away.”

The violence in that province resulted in about 200 foreigners seeking refuge at the Leslie police station, with “many more” expected, said Mbuli.

Tavern attack

In KwaZulu-Natal, the provincial government said an attack on a tavern owned by Nigerians in Durban’s Umbilo was political, not xenophobic. At least 150 people turned on the tavern owners on Tuesday night, and a local hostel has decided not to admit foreigners.

KwaZulu-Natal’s safety and security minister, Bheki Cele, accused the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) of being behind the attacks, allegedly involving residents from a Dalton Road men’s hostel. The road is the site of a number of hostels.

“There was a meeting of the IFP branch in Dalton yesterday [Tuesday] and … I know it was them who went straight from there to the tavern and raided the place and smashed the cars,” Cele said.

At least 100 hostel dwellers converged on Durban’s Umbilo suburb on Wednesday, ordering foreigners to leave KwaZulu-Natal. Captain John Lazarus said many residents of the Dalton Road men’s hostel were armed with stones and bottles.

However, the IFP has denied responsibility, with its KwaZulu-Natal chairperson, Mntomuhle Khawula, saying he was disturbed by Cele’s statement. He said that if any IFP members were involved in the xenophobic attacks, they would face disciplinary action.

“The IFP is all about ubuntu … In the African lifestyle, you never chase away people, you comfort and give protection, so xenophobia is against our policy,” he said.

IFP head Mangosuthu Buthelezi said his earlier predictions that xenophobia was brewing had been ignored. As a former home affairs minister, he had suggested a more open controlled immigration policy, but this was ignored and abandoned when he left the ministry.

In Gauteng on Wednesday, though reports were received of unrest in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, xenophobic attacks appeared to have subsided somewhat, a provincial spokesperson said.

“There are no new reports of attacks,” said Thabo Masebe, deputy director of communications for the provincial government. “Our sense is that the situation is under control, but we will continue to monitor the areas and take action when necessary.”

Gauteng centres and police stations housing people fleeing from the violence urgently need food, baby food, nappies and blankets for the thousands seeking shelter. The crowded conditions have led the police to contract the “Red Ants”, usually associated with forced removals, to help control people at the Cleveland police station, especially at meal times.

Ekurhuleni spokesperson Zweli Mkhize appealed for donations to be taken to the metro’s service centres. Arrangements to collect bulk donations can be made by phoning Tel: 011 874 5025. Aid numbers are also provided on the M&G Online’s special report on the attacks.

Third force

Meanwhile, it is “highly unlikely” that a third force was behind the recent outbreak of xenophobic violence in Gauteng province, Institute for Democracy in South Africa researcher Steven Friedman said on Wednesday.

“I think the problem with the idea of a third force is that it enables politicians and society to avoid the real issues,” he said. “This [xenophobia] is nothing new … the idea that something is being stoked by some evil individual out of nothing is misleading.”

Friedman was commenting on assertions that there was a third force behind the spate of violence unleashed on foreigners in the past 10 days. He added that the solution to the problem is not convoluted, but rather quite simple.

“Since we became a democracy, the law, policy, everything has assumed that people from other countries are a drain on society, but all the evidence is that they are actually a benefit. The solution is not convoluted … people simply need to understand that foreigners are an asset and this needs political leadership,” he said.

‘Military risks’

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) on Wednesday expressed concern about the possibility of the army to be deployed to quell the ongoing violence. The Democratic Alliance had on Tuesday called on Mbeki to deploy the army to assist the police in stemming the tide of violence.

While condemning the ongoing attacks, the LHR said deploying the army to police civilians is a concern, citing a lack of a legal framework for the military to get involved in what is essentially a police responsibility.

“Such use of the military risks exacerbating the situation and creating a security environment similar to that continuously used prior to 1994. In any event, investigation of crime, public safety and the prosecution of crimes committed against foreigners require members who are trained in those areas. The military is not equipped to bring to book perpetrators of crimes against xenophobia victims,” the LHR said in a statement.

SANDF spokesperson Mkhwanazi said the constitutional obligation of the military is to defend the country. A secondary role is to “support” the people of the country. The SANDF has to wait for a request to assist before acting, he said.

The Safety and Security Department on Wednesday confirmed that it had asked the SANDF to supply equipment, but not troops, to help quell the attacks.

The ANC Youth League (ANCYL) said the government had not done enough to “arrest the anarchy”. Its president, Julius Malema, said: “We call on government to unleash every resource at its disposal to nip this anarchy in the bud, including deployment of the military if the need arises.”

He called on youth to rise against the “thuggery and hooliganism” and to bring order to their communities.

‘Blood from a stone’

A Financial Times correspondent said at a media forum on Wednesday that Mbeki spoke out about local xenophobic attacks too late. Alec Russell told the International Media Forum Conference in Johannesburg that Mbeki should have issued a statement when the crisis erupted last week, not only this week.

“It is easy to write such a statement; it could be done in two, three minutes. The news cycle is so fast that immediate responses are vital,” said Russell.

He said while there are some good government spokespersons, most do not cooperate. “Getting information from government was like getting blood from a stone.”

Russell said a lesson might be learnt from African National Congress president Jacob Zuma. Although Zuma finds himself in an awkward situation, he still gives media interviews freely.

Meanwhile, world football governing body Fifa has expressed concern over this week’s wave of xenophobic attacks. It, however, hopes the World Cup’s “unifying power” can help overcome divisions, Fifa spokesperson Delia Fisher said.

She said the football body was saddened by the loss of life and injuries incurred during the attacks. “We are obviously concerned about this issue and hope that the Fifa World Cup and its unifying power will help to overcome these divisions.”

Fisher, however, said it is not Fifa’s role as a sports federation to comment on matters of national sovereignty and domestic affairs. The football body has confidence in the South African authorities to resolve this issue.

On South Africa’s preparedness for the 2010 World Cup, Fisher warned any deviations from the deadlines for the stadiums constructions “will have consequences”. Stadium construction is being closely monitored by the local organising committee’s technical team and Fifa.