Johannesburg’s Democratic Alliance mayor, Herman Mashaba, faces an investigation by the South African Human Rights Commission over comments he made about foreign nationals after a complaint was laid by the ANC, which said it is trying to “prevent a diplomatic and xenophobic violent” backlash.
He came under fire this week after he described illegal migrants occupying abandoned and derelict buildings in the inner city as criminals, and accused them of using their rundown shelters to hide from police who are too scared to go inside.
“We will tutor Herman Mashaba on why it was careless of him to make such a statement, given the history of the region with xenophobic attacks,” the ANC’s Johannesburg spokesperson, Jolidee Matongo, said.
“A responsible leader ought to know not to make irresponsible statements that could possibly precipitate another event of xenophobic violence.”
Speaking at a review of his first 100 days in office, Mashaba lamented the fact that foreign nationals were living in Johannesburg illegally and warned that his administration would show them no mercy.
“People who are in our city illegally, whether you are South African or someone from outside, please respect our laws when you are [in our] city. If you do not, we’ll have a challenge. Our law enforcement agencies deal with cases on a daily basis of students being robbed and when they find people, they find them with no papers whatsoever,” said Mashaba.
“They’re holding our country to ransom and I’m going to be the last South African to allow it. I’ve got constraints as local government, because the national government has opened our borders to criminality,” he continued.
The mayor’s comments made waves throughout the Southern African Development Community, where most foreign nationals living in South Africa come from, and were condemned by the rights group Amnesty International.
In 2008, South Africa saw a wave of xenophobic attacks that resulted in the deaths of at least 63 foreign African nationals, with more than 300 000 forced to flee their homes countrywide. A second wave in 2015 followed, with many people blaming the outbreak on remarks made by King Goodwill Zwelithini.
“Rather than making comments that risk fanning the flames of xenophobic attacks, the authorities must act to counter stereotypes, eradicate discrimination and foster greater equality in South Africa,” the executive director of Amnesty International South Africa, Sicel’mpilo Shange-Buthane, said.
Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba also expressed concern about Mashaba’s remarks, which he feared might lead the public “to adopt xenophobic attitudes”.
The African Diaspora Forum accused the newly elected mayor of trying to subvert the law in order to clean out the illegally occupied buildings in the inner city by force.
“Because he is not ready to provide temporary shelters for the people to be removed from high-rise buildings, he wants to incite violence and get ordinary South Africans to remove the [illegal migrants] by force. You as the mayor now want these people removed with violence so you can have a business in the city centre,” the forum’s chairperson, Marc Gbaffou, said this week.
He also claimed that blaming foreign nationals for crime is a cop-out for South African leaders who won’t face up to the failure of the permit application system at home affairs.
“Treating illegal migrants as criminals is so strange because we all know home affairs is not functioning properly. Hundreds of international migrants who go there to get permits are sent from pillar to post. We believe the home affairs offices in Johannesburg are dysfunctional,” Gbaffou added.
DA Gauteng head John Moodey, said: “We haven’t taken any action against him because we need to look at what happened in context and ask relevant questions about how it was said.”
The mayor’s office insists he has done nothing wrong.
“It is no surprise that Mayor Mashaba’s comments have resulted in no cases of xenophobic violence. [They] were in no way xenophobic,” said his spokesperson, Tony Taverna-Turisan. “He wants to see rundown buildings turned into quality low-cost housing for our residents and affordable rental spaces for small businesses,” he said.