May 23, 2008

Army called in against xenophobic violence / Ministers confess to failure on violence

The South African army has been called in to bolster police efforts to end the xenophobic clashes that have gripped the country's richest province. At least 42 people have died since xenophobic violence erupted in Gauteng; at least 25.000 people have been displaced.The number of foreign nationals, both legal and illegal, residing in South Africa is estimated at anywhere between one million and 10 million, but around three million are thought to have fled Zimbabwe.

No foreign nationals are immune from the effects of the violence and even those residing in Yeoville, an inner-city Johannesburg suburb where foreign nationals are thought to outnumber South Africans, are contemplating leaving. Government said it belied there were sinister forces at play encouraging the violence, which has seeped into Mpumalanga Province, adjoining Gauteng, after two groceries stores owned by Somalis were torched on 21 May. Attacks against foreigners have also been reported in Durban, Mpumalanga and North West. Some reports cite nearly 500 Somalis as having been killed in xenophobic attacks in South Africa since 1998.

"The response by the South African government to the riots against foreigners ... follows an established pattern," said a statement by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), a Pretoria-based think-tank. "Having acknowledged the deeply held xenophobia that apartheid inculcated in our society, government's reaction reverts to type in the search for scapegoats and cop-outs. Instead of leadership and engaging with the root causes of social turbulence, unrest and crime, we are in search of a conspiracy, a third hand."

The South African Institute of Race Relations, (SAIRR) a South African policy and research organisation, said in a statement on 20 May that the blame lay with failed government policies and inaction, which had created a perfect storm. "The government's repeated failures to bring levels of violent crime under control contributed to an environment which saw people resort to violence without fear of arrest or successful prosecution. In failing to maintain the rule of law, the state had conditioned many poor communities to violent behaviour," the SAIRR statement said.

Police corruption, incompetence by the ministry of safety and security, and the poor performance of the prosecuting authorities had combined to "erode the capacity of the police to provide a safe and secure environment in South Africa." Ineffective border controls had allowed millions of people to cross into South Africa and this was further exacerbated by corruption within Home Affairs. "Thabo Mbeki's quiet diplomacy provided a lifeline to the ailing Zimbabwe regime that kept it in power longer than would otherwise have been the case ... Seen in light of South Africa's inability to secure its borders, our foreign policy on Zimbabwe was destined to have only one effect - the inflow of illegal immigrants," the SAIRR commented.

High unemployment levels, especially among the youth, and the risks of long-term unemployment have been ignored by government. "Labour legislation, hopelessly inappropriate for a largely unskilled workforce, has contributed to keep many mainly black South Africans out of jobs. Immigrants were able to secure employment, as these labour policies did not apply to them and they were in many cases able to make a living free from government grants or regulation," the authors of the SAIRR statement pointed out.

"The violence we have experienced over the past week can be directly attributed to a series of policy failures on the part of Thabo Mbeki's government. Warnings to that effect were too easily dismissed by government spokespeople, who accused analysts of racism and 'doom and gloom' scenarios. A 'worst possible scenario' has now materialised and requires a more mature and measured response from government. Failing that, we should expect that similar unrest could occur with little warning in any area of South Africa," the SAIRR said.

In the meantime, the Presidency has admitted that government policy failures contributed to xenophobic violence. Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad said at a media briefing there was "no question that this has happened as a consequence of government's failure. But if you say the issues are to deal with poverty, the rest of Africa would be in the same state. This is not xenophobia, it's barbaric. None of this (policy failures, poverty and xenophobia) can justify the attacks." He was responding to questions on whether the government's immigration policy, backlogs in the provision of services and intelligence failures had contributed to the crisis.

In an interview, Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula admitted that the government had been "caught off guard" by the brutal violence. Nqakula said: "Intelligence (services) did not think that the conflict would spread and degenerate into violence." He also admitted that there were weaknesses in service delivery, but said this could not be used to justify the attacks. Xenophobia was a crime, he said. But neither Nqakula nor Pahad could explain the comments of the director-general of the National Intelligence Agency, Manala Manzini, that the violence had been deliberately unleashed and orchestrated ahead of next year's general election.

Manzini said at a conference in Cape Town, "We believe that as South Africa prepares for another national election early next year, the so-called black-on-black violence that was witnessed prior to our first election in 1994 has deliberately been unleashed and orchestrated."
Despite Pahad's concession on policy failures, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said that in hindsight she would not have changed the government's immigration policy.

Two years ago, civil society organisations warned that the influx of Zimbabweans -- because of a political, economic and social crisis in that country -- was reaching crisis proportions. But the government ignored the warnings and did not take any special measures to deal with the influx of immigrants fleeing the crisis in Zimbabwe. "I still maintain that to set up camps for anyone is still not correct, but I'm also now saying let's have a debate," Mapisa-Nqakula said in an interview with Business Day. Victims of violence included Zimbabweans, Malawians, Mozambicans and Somalis.

Although the government denies that it is now setting up refugee camps for immigrants, Nqakula said an instruction had been given to Gauteng mayors to identify land on which to erect tents for those displaced in the recent attacks. Pahad was also asked to explain why Mbeki had seen fit to merely issue statements on the unrest, and had not visited victims of the violence or gone to the unrest areas. "We would have to look at that (Mbeki visiting unrest areas), and see how it (the violence) unfolds," Pahad said. (IRIN/Business Day, Johannesburg)

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