Rights group Seri closes over online threats after it prevented the eviction of street traders

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) has had to temporarily close its doors after online threats were made against the human rights organisation and its staff, including burning its offices and references to kidnapping, lynching and rape. Photographs and contact details of employees have been widely circulated on social media.

Seri alleges the threats emerged in response to public statements by Nkululeko Mbundu, the City of Johannesburg’s member of the mayoral committee (MMC) for economic development and an ActionSA councillor.

After Seri and the South African Informal Trader’s Forum (SAITF) successfully reversed the eviction last month of about 400 street traders from the inner-city precinct west of the Noord taxi rank in Johannesburg’s city centre, Mbundu appeared to accuse Seri of “using locals as a front” and that “we are dealing with a syndicate with big vested interest”.

But his spokesperson, Mmatshepo Oganne, said the statements were a reference “to the scourge of illegal traders using mechanisms including … organisations such as Seri to support their agenda of keeping the status quo”.

According to Seri, the statements have encouraged xenophobic people to making the chilling online threats.

One Seri attorney began receiving calls shortly after Mbundu’s tweets. She was accused of “supporting foreigners” and “wanting the city to be dirty” and was told to “watch [her] back because [they] have [her] picture and number”. She says anonymous people call her phone “endlessly”. She changed her social media handles before deactivating all her accounts but is still afraid to leave home. 

Johannesburg mayor Mpho Phalatse has distanced herself and the metro from Mbundu’s statements. Her head of communications, Mabine Seabe, condemned the statements, saying they “do not represent the views of the multiparty government” running the city.

Acknowledging that the public statements of elected officials can incite violence, Seabe, who also apologised to the SAITF, said the mayor “does not stand for the incitement of violence against Seri and staff”. 

“Somebody has dropped the ball,” he added, confirming that an internal investigation was underway to establish what had happened and that “offending parties will be held accountable”. He could not commit to a timeline for the investigation.

Oganne said that “necessary actions need to be taken against those who have indeed incited violence and threatened the lives of the Seri staff” but rejected “any insinuation that [Mbundu’s] tweets amount to incitement”. 

“The intent of the MMC’s tweets was not to incite violence but to merely share a statement that was released by Seri and inform residents on reasons for the halt in Operation Buya Mthetho.” 

Buya Mthetho is the city’s multi-departmental by-law enforcement operation.

In a traditionally slow-moving area of reform, the Johannesburg city council passed a new informal trading policy in April that prioritises South African street traders. 

A new policy had been part of ActionSA’s campaigning before the 2021 local government elections, where the party’s good performance helped Mbundu to the helm of economic development in South Africa’s biggest city. 

Seabe denied claims by critics that the policy was a sign of ActionSA’s hostility to migrants in the city, saying he didn’t “believe that the institutionalisation of xenophobia is the case”.

The City of Johannesburg’s attempts to clamp down on unlawful trade in the inner city has cut across administrations. In late 2013, under mayor Parks Tau, the municipality illegally evicted nearly 8 000 traders from their places of work. What became known as Operation Clean Sweep was lambasted in the constitutional court, which ordered traders be allowed to return to their places of work. 

Seri’s executive director, Nomzamo Zondo, who was arrested when she tried to enforce the constitutional court’s order, described the city’s recent clampdown on street traders as “a bit of a déjà vu” .

The SAITF’s general secretary, Brian Phaaloh, said of the evictions: “I don’t know how you clean human beings. Maybe one day someone will explain it to me.”

Seabe said the city’s continued efforts to clean the inner city would not amount to a “clean sweep of people”. 

“It’s about ensuring this place is clean and safe for all its residents and its visitors,” he said.

ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba has thrown the party’s full support behind Mbundu and his public statements, which the former Johannesburg mayor said were simply a show of support for the law and order that Phalatse’s multiparty government should be prioritising.

There was “absolutely nothing wrong with what he has done,” said Mashaba, adding that  his party “takes serious exception” to Phalatse’s rebuke. “She must not work on emotions, this is not an emotional issue.”

Zondo said she would reassess the threats against Seri and its staff, which have been reported to the police, by the end of the week before deciding to reopen their offices. 

“We are not going to be cowed by people who think that migrants do not deserve protection,” she said.

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Dennis Webster
Dennis Webster has a research background in labour, land and housing. He writes about cities, farmwork and popular politics in rural areas.

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