Attacks on foreign nationals are becoming more frequent in Johannesburg, but at the top, two political leaders with prominent influence are playing the blame game instead of resolving a burgeoning crisis.
Xenophobic violence swept through Jeppestown on Sunday night, with reports indicating that shops owned by foreign nationals had been looted.
It’s now the morning after and in response to increasing attacks, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has lashed out at Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba. In a press statement on Monday morning, Mashaba recalled an agreement with Gigaba to collaborate on migration issues following a meeting in December.
Mashaba said after the meeting that he had sent letters to Gigaba, but they remained unanswered.
“Several letters from my office to further discuss the matters relating to our previous meeting have been delivered to the office of the minister. These have all gone unanswered,” Mashaba said.
He added that an invitation had been sent to Gigaba to attend a City of Johannesburg lekgotla. But Gigaba refused, he said.
“Notably, given my concerns and in the hope of addressing the problem, I invited the minister to attend a recent city lekgotla, so as to provide the minister with an opportunity to discuss possible collaborative interventions for tackling xenophobia and migration. This invitation was declined,” Mashaba said.
Mashaba’s timeline of recent events is an attempt to highlight that he has done everything he could, and probed every opportunity to meet with Gigaba prior to the current attacks.
It also shows that the mayor is on the defence. He’s already said that he will not be “scapegoated” for xenophobic attacks, but now his battle seems to be directed squarely at Gigaba.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance has turned a blind eye towards the backlash against Mashaba. DA leader Mmusi Maimane has said Mashaba’s statement on foreign nationals and crime “do not help”, but the party has taken no action even though the Human Rights Commission is investigating whether Mashaba incited the recent attacks.
Gigaba’s soft diplomacy
Mashaba’s criticism of Gigaba comes after the minister suggested Mashaba is to blame for the recent spate of xenophobic attacks
During a walkabout in Rosettenville, the minister said politicians who put South Africa’s relationship with other African countries in danger would not be tolerated.
“Our relations as a country and particularly with our African neighbours get affected. It may not mean much to you as a leader, considering that some of your friends could be somewhere very far away, but for us … the way we treat SADC [Southern African Developmental Community] nationals in our country must be in accordance with our laws and human rights ethos,” Gigaba said.
While Mashaba’s outspoken remarks on foreign nationals have caused concern, Gigaba’s soft approach has also done little to alleviate attacks. He has tried to speak gently of South Africans and foreign nationals and the impact has been equally soft.
“The vast majority of South Africans are not xenophobic and the vast majority of immigrants are law abiding, religious people who seek only what is best for their children and families, for their fellow brethren and for their countries both of origin and abode,” Gigaba was quoted as saying at the Lighthouse Chapel International Church in Pretoria on Sunday.
On the ground, the minister has prioritised high policing as a response to the attacks and on Monday police conducted searches in areas surrounding Jeppestown to find looted goods. In 2015, Operation Fiela was launched and while the minister continues to defend the programme, attacks on foreign nationals are still happening two years later.
The silence around the real concerns
Some of the root causes of the attacks including unemployment, a lack of service delivery and policing have not been addressed with the fervour they deserve.
The vigilante-style attacks in Rosettenville targeted Nigerian-owned businesses and homes alleged to be drug dens and brothels. At an anti-foreigner march in Tshwane last Friday, South Africans protested against the employment of foreign nationals in South Africa.
While Gigaba and Mashaba use press statements to engage in verbal battles, attacks on foreign nationals are spreading. Two influential leaders may have the power to enforce effective measures to address xenophobia, but instead a mayor from the DA and a minister from the ANC are exasperating one another – and everyone who’s watching them.
Who will take the blame when someone gets hurt?