SA Citizens Swept along by Politics of Fear

Cape Times (South Africa), June 3, 2010 | Go to article overview

SA Citizens Swept along by Politics of Fear


BYLINE: Michael Neocosmos

A few weeks ago it was announced that Tanzania, one of the poorest countries on the African continent, had granted full citizenship rights to 162 000 refugees from Burundi who had fled their country 38 years ago. In contrast, in South Africa, provincial police commissioners in a briefing to Parliament in March invented fanciful stories regarding three million illegal immigrants in Gauteng who are apparently stretching police resources, thereby constituting a threat to security.

How can a poor country like Tanzania conceive of African foreigners as potential citizens, and a rich one like South Africa can only think in terms of an "Afrika gevaar"?

Can this fear be seen as an indication of a "neo-apartheid" - a form of racial and ethnic exclusion - which, while exhibiting some similarities with the version we have tried to overcome, is not simply a left-over but a new product of post-apartheid society? How can nationalism, an emancipatory ideology in the context of a struggle for freedom turn itself so rapidly into a chauvinistic one which expresses a denial of freedom?

The answers to these questions are anything but obvious or easy, but we need to address them. According to the Human Rights Commission, we could soon be faced with another series of xenophobic attacks when South Africa is no longer basking in the spotlight after the excitement of the soccer World Cup has abated.

The Sunday Times of London recently reported that the Red Ants vigilante group is being deployed by the Gauteng provincial department of transport to "beautify" the roads around Ellis Park stadium by violently removing "foreigners". One of the Red Ants members was quoted as saying: "It's our land and we have the right to help the authorities move them on. If the municipality asks us to destroy these cockroaches, then we'll do that and flatten their homes to dust." But they have no such "right"; under the law what they are doing is illegal. The language of the cleansing of cockroaches is identical to that used in Rwanda in 1994 and elsewhere.

We should also know, as the evidence for this is overwhelming, that not only are the police inflating numbers to suit their purposes (at most, foreigners amount to little more than 580 000 in Gauteng, according to calculations by Wits University's Forced Migration Studies Programme), but also that suspected foreigners are a source of easy income for cash-strapped policemen. This is both because vulnerable African migrants - legal or illegal - are used as "mobile ATMs" and fleeced of their money regularly through rackets set up by all-powerful cops, but also because police officers can thereby easily increase their tally of arrests on which their promotion depends. The law which has not broken with a tradition of ethnic and racial exclusion, the police, the Department of Home Affairs whose border immigration controls are notoriously corrupt and whose processing of applications for asylum are notoriously arbitrary, along with parastatal agencies such as the Red Ants and the Lindela Detention Centre all add up to an overwhelming state apparatus of oppressive controls on migrants whose attempts to earn a living has thus been criminalised.

This does not mean that there are no professional people working for these institutions, but simply that a culture of xenophobia predominates. Particularly after May 2008, it has been the poor who have been blamed for acts of violence against foreigners. But, reports suggest that they have often been incited by local power brokers, councillors and other community "strongmen" keen on exploiting fears that foreigners are "stealing" jobs or houses and even "our freedom", for their own power needs. Blaming the poor has become a regular pastime today when service-delivery protests are seen as an expression of community frustration with the absence of resources; yet, at the same time it is notoriously the case that the police find it easier to police and harass the poor often in conformity with the wishes of local and regional politicians, than to police crime. …

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