Mashaba’s xenophobic legacy



The outgoing mayor’s tweet about the arrest statistics of migrants in Johannesburg over four years displays both his bigotry and a misunderstanding of how crime and policing work

When Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba leaves his office on November 27 2019, migrants and refugees living in the city will be relieved. His vitriol has made Johannesburg a more dangerous place for them.

Mashaba resigned as mayor of Johannesburg last month after the shock return of Helen Zille as federal chair of the Democratic Alliance. His resignation was followed by party leader Mmusi Maimane and former Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip.

During his time in office, Mashaba has regularly uttered xenophobic statements. His most recent were a series of tweets about crimes committed by African migrants in the City of Johannesburg under the hackneyed hashtag #WorldCupOfCrime.

A closer look at the statistics related to crimes committed by African migrants in the city from 2016 to 2019, however, proves that the outgoing mayor’s tweets were motivated by the same institutionalised bigotry that saw him make his first citizen’s arrest of a street trader pushing a cow’s head in a trolley in the central business district of Joburg a year ago.

At the time, he tweeted: “We are going to sit back and allow people like you to bring us Ebolas in the name of small business. Health of our people first. Our health facilities are already stretched to the limit [sic].”

Despite wanting to paint himself as a principled leader since his swearing-in on August 22 2016, Mashaba seemed to make the real issues affecting Johannesburg — pending bankruptcy, embedded corruption, dysfunctional services, pervasive violence and horrendous forms of economic and spatial inequality — worse.

In the latest incident, Mashaba fired off a series of tweets displaying slideshows of countries, including Nigeria, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, next to the number of crimes committed by citizens from those countries in the city over four years.

But a closer look at those statistics refutes Mashaba’s inaccurate narrative that African migrants are to blame for the high levels of crime in Johannesburg.

The statistics

Over the four-year period, there were 420 arrests of Malawian migrants. About half of these were for driving under the influence of alcohol. There were just four arrests for more serious crimes such as murder and attempted murder.

There were 765 arrests of Nigerian migrants, with 212 for driving under the influence of alcohol. The majority of other crimes for which Nigerian migrants were arrested were false driver’s licences (193 arrests), fraud (206 arrests) and possession or dealing of drugs (87 arrests). There were two arrests for murder and three for attempted murder.

The highest number of arrests were of Zimbabwean migrants, tallying close to 3 000 arrests in the four-year period. But again, the biggest portion of these were for driving under the influence of alcohol (853 arrests), theft (478 arrests), counterfeit goods (367 arrests) and possession of a dangerous weapon (211 arrests). More serious contact crimes include 141 arrests for hijacking, 91 arrests for murder and 37 arrests for attempted murder.

The higher arrest numbers for Zimbabwean migrants comes down to the high number of migrants living in South Africa. Zimbabwe has been facing a prolonged economic crisis and many of its citizens moved to South Africa during former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s misrule of the country.

Tweeting a list of figures of arrests of African migrants in the City of Johannesburg doesn’t give the full picture. Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies, said the way Mashaba tweeted the figures showed a clear misunderstanding of how measuring policing successes and failures works.

Xenophobic discrimination

“It’s absolute nonsense. It’s not a measure of crime, it is a measure of arrests,” Newham said. “If you merely look at those statistics compared to the amount of crime taking place in Gauteng and nationally, what it really concerns is that there is a very small number of foreign nationals being arrested for crimes in Gauteng. The vast, vast majority of people arrested for crime in South Africa are South Africans. We have about 1.5-million arrests in South Africa and well over 95% of those are South Africans.

“It is an indication of xenophobia. He is trying to distract from [his] inability to make the city safe [and] the inability to build relationships between people that grow partnerships [and the] cohesion that we need in order to achieve the kind of outcomes we want. It is a very cheap and disgusting political ploy used by the worst types of politicians globally and now unfortunately in South Africa as well.”

Using statistics of the number of arrests in the city doesn’t say anything about crime. The victims of the crime survey and the statistics reported to the South African Police Service should give a better sense of the crime rates.

“The problem of using arrests in the way that Mashaba is, is just nonsensical. It is not telling us anything about the involvement of foreign nationals in crime,” Newham said. “Most people from other countries living in South Africa do not commit crimes. They are largely law-abiding people, even if they are here illegally.

READ MORE: Migration system is ‘xenophobic’

“They want to be here legally, but it’s just that our government makes it extremely difficult for them to [do that] … That might be [their] only crime, that they are not documented. In fact, the biggest number of arrests are of people who do not have the right documents, not because they have committed any other crime.

“It’s gutter-level politics … It’s trying to demonise vulnerable people, it’s trying to distract from failures, and it’s a measure of his xenophobic, bigoted attitude towards people from other African countries. It’s not a measure of anything else,” Newham said.

African focus

African Diaspora Forum chairperson Vusumuzi Sibanda said it was curious that the statistics only looked at crimes committed by African migrants, and not those committed by European or Asian migrants.

“It is very, very weird. He is trying to create an impression about African migrants. Over a period of four years, I think the highest is about 2 800 [Zimbabwean arrests] … In a year, that is about 700. He has not really shown statistics to juxtapose it with the number of migrants estimated to be living in the country,” Sibanda said.

“That’s really misleading, because he has only shown you something that is one-sided. But also, it is only about African migrants, so that shows he has got such hatred and he is trying to create a bad impression about African migrants.”

According to Sibanda, migrants in Johannesburg regard Mashaba’s resignation as a “very big blessing”.

“All he has been saying about migrants have been very negative, from migrants bringing Ebola to migrants bringing rats [to] Alexandra … When you look at the recent raids at China City, where a lot of people have been arrested, not a single person from China appears in those statistics. Quite interesting,” Sibanda said.

‘Skewed’ stats

Loren Landau, a professor from the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, said he wasn’t even sure what Mashaba was trying to prove with his statistics.

“World over, we know the police arrest who they think are criminals, and I suspect that the crime stats are skewed by that. If you target informal traders for arrest as your main crime-fighting strategy, you’ll generate numbers that suggest immigrants are major criminals,” Landau said.

READ MORE: Prejudice against immigrants cuts across class and race

“The broader issue for me is what we do with this picture. If the city were well policed and well run, crime would go away regardless of who is there. What exactly does he propose as a way of making the place safer?

“Mashaba’s legacy will be in part measured by how he has further naturalised a discourse that African immigrants are the source of Johannesburg’s problems. This combined with a more general approach, which blames the poor for their poverty,” Landau concluded.

This article was first published by New Frame.

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Jan Bornman
Jan Bornman
Reporter at New Frame. Interested in migration, refugees and asylum seekers' stories. MA in Migration & Displacement.

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