/ 23 April 2015

Xenophobia: What did we learn from 2008?

Madala Hostel residents in Alexandra were indignant during police raids following the recent xenophobic attacks that spread to Gauteng.
Madala Hostel residents in Alexandra were indignant during police raids following the recent xenophobic attacks that spread to Gauteng.


“If the government has failed [to stabilise the situation], it should admit that it has done so, call in the army and declare a state of emergency,” said Congolese businessperson Daniel Byamunga Dunia from the confines of a Prospecton refugee camp in Durban last week.

It was hard to accuse Dunia, who had emerged as a spokesperson at this camp sheltering almost 300 people, of being alarmist. Refugees hailing from various parts of sub-Saharan Africa had been pouring into camps around the city for roughly two weeks. 

Violence and looting targeting foreigners or their businesses continued to erupt in the city and parts of the province, spiralling back to Gauteng. By Sunday, pictures of the fatal stabbing of a Mozambican named Emmanuel Sithole in Alexandra, near Sandton, had made front-page news, with the president ­saying they made South Africa “look bad”.

As it was in 2008 when more than 60 people were killed in xenophobic attacks, it was the hate graphically inflicted on Mozambicans that would come to symbolise the latest grisly wave of xenophobia. The 2008 murder of Ernesto Nhamuave, who was burned alive in the Ramaphosa informal settlement on the East Rand, was never solved. The murder of Sithole, on the other hand, brought about the first arrests for the murder of a foreigner since this round of attacks started on March 31.

That the government eventually deployed the army in the Johannesburg hot spots of Alexandra and Jeppestown and other parts of the country may or may not be viewed through the prism of Dunia’s comments, although Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula admitted that “we are deploying because there is an emergency”. A spokesperson for the defence force said the army was only there to assist the police.

True enough, in the raids that took place in hostels in Alex and Jeppestown, which to an extent have become the launchpads of some of the attacks, the soldiers hung back. They were there to bolster the fortitude that was seemingly missing from the police, who in some cases avoided confrontations with looters and attackers.

Early warning systems
Although concerted efforts to set up early warning systems were made by security agencies, refugee rights groups and nongovernmental organisations following 2008’s xenophobic violence, several factors have coalesced to undermine the system. This has resulted in the seemingly haphazard and reactive responses to the current attacks.

Observers with insight into the security services believe that a lack of capacity in intelligence gathering, continuing problems with public order policing and increasing political polarisation have resulted in apathy and paralysis in the on-the-ground police response to xenophobia, despite the systems that have been put in place.

China Ngubane of the KwaZulu-Natal-based Centre for Civil Society says in Isipingo, where the current wave of attacks was sparked by an industrial dispute, “it was like the police were the friends of the looters. It was like they were helping because there were no warning shots or teargas being fired. They had no will to stop it.

“I spoke to a station commander about what was happening at Isipingo and I was told that they were short-staffed, which was why you had people being turned away from opening cases.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), working with organisations such as the African Centre for Migration and Society and the Displaced and Migrant Persons Support Programme, has built a network of SMS informants to feed information directly to the police.

Tina Ghelli of the UNHCR believes that the system has had a positive impact where it has already been set up. “Where we’ve sent info through, police have responded quickly. Usually, there are follow-up messages that police are in the area,” she said. “Sometimes there is no response from the police but when there is, fewer shops are affected.”

Walter da Costa, the manager of the Displaced and Migrants Persons Support Programme, who was involved in initiating the early warning system network, admits that it had not been properly set up around the country when the recent wave of attacks erupted in KwaZulu-Natal.

“There are a lot of low-level, everyday xenophobic attacks and sometimes it’s difficult to get early warnings more than 24 hours in advance, because at times the looting happens when there’s some other activity like service delivery protests,” says Da Costa, a former member of the South African National Defence Force. “When the situation is festering and there is mobilisation taking place, that’s when the system works.”

Police apathy
Da Costa says the fact that the system doesn’t often trickle down is indicative of “the apathy of individual police”. Then there are other issues complicating matters, such as how police handle the looting scene when they get there.

During the wave of looting that took place in Soweto in January, a daily newspaper ran an unforgettable image of a trio of traffic cops walking away as young men plunged into an already agape foreign-owned shop named Madiba Supermarket to empty out its remains.

“Police might cordon off a scene but will allow looters to loot until they’re finished, or they wait to use maximum force, which they can’t since Marikana,” observes Da Costa.

Crime intelligence
When it comes to handling public violence, the challenges facing public order policing since 2008 haven’t been completely addressed. In the tax year ending 2009, there were only 3 306 trained public order policing members compared to 7 227 in the year ending 2006. Last year that figure was 4 700, says Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies. “We saw an improvement in the numbers of public order officials in 2010, but that dropped thereafter.”

Newham says information from 2008 shows that even those attacks had been organised. “People were going from door to door, saying: ‘You’ll be attacked; leave now.’ They were orchestrated by either formal or informal local-level leaders [like taxi owners or ward councillors]. They had status and could mobilise people.

“It is therefore important to have good informer networks in places where xenophobic violence has occurred to ensure that the police are able to receive information that enables them to intervene proactively when violence is being planned. [The fact] that people who looted foreign-run or -owned shops largely got away with it further encouraged people in the latest wave of attacks.”

Newham says over the past few years there has been a deterioration in crime intelligence capacity, coupled with an increase in aggravated robberies between 2012 (101 203) and 2014 (119 351) – an average increase of 50 robberies per day.

“This deterioration in capacity occurred following political interference to protect South African Police Service head of crime intelligence Lieutenant General Richard Mdluli, despite mountains of evidence of wrongdoing,” says Newham. “Senior and experienced officers who were against Mdluli were forced out and a number of Mdluli’s cronies are still active in this division. This has contributed to a climate of mistrust and low morale at a leadership level.”

Tighter controls
Da Costa notes that in Soweto, for example, where more than 1 000 shops were looted, “there were large gangs moving from township to township, taking cigarettes, airtime and cash on hand, then leaving the shops more vulnerable”.

In Durban and Johannesburg, the attackers mostly targeted foreign-owned shops before the situation degenerated into general attacks on foreigners, which hasn’t happened on a large scale since 2008.

Government-speak around the framing of xenophobia has increasingly moved towards avoidance of the term “xenophobia” in favour of characterising attacks of foreigners as primarily criminal, as if the two were mutually exclusive concepts.

Loren Landau, the South African research chair in mobility and the politics of difference at the African Centre for Migration and Society, says although the nature of the violence has mutated, foreigners continue to be held collectively responsible for economic stagnation and crimes purportedly committed by individuals. “What I believe has remained constant is the role of local political and economic interests in fomenting the attacks,” he says.

Landau believes part of the problem “is in how we select and support our leaders. Ward councillors are the only directly elected officials and the only ones who must meet constituents face-to-face to be elected. They face the firing line of popular discontent, but are poorly empowered to address their voters’ gripes.”

He says: “Faced with perennial shortfalls of services, dwellings and jobs, is it any wonder local leadership allows and abets the scapegoating and appropriation of foreign-owned shops, houses or goods? With new resources to distribute and a demon to blame, they come out winners.”

Landau believes tighter immigration control, which the government has begun implementing, will only drive people further underground, making them more exploitable. Moreover, shutting off trade and traffic between South Africa and its neighbours will weaken the regional economy, which depends heavily on remittances, he says.