South Africa under scrutiny for ‘state xenophobia’

Police accused of heavy-handed tactics as foreigners are rounded up in a massive ‘crime operation’ across country.

xenophobia south africa
Hundreds of foreign nationals have been rounded up by police officials in South Africa [Khadija Patel/Al Jazeera]

Johannesburg, South Africa – A semblance of normalcy is returning to the streets of the inner city of Johannesburg weeks after xenophobic violence hit South Africa’s commercial capital.

The city appears to have just moved along, wearing the memory of violence in large billboards condemning the xenophobia that killed at least eight people, injured hundreds and displaced thousands more in early April.

But behind the facade is a massive government operation targeting illegal foreign nationals that many have argued is “state xenophobia”.

Several hundreds of migrants, many undocumented, have been rounded up by the South African Police Services during stop-and-search procedures and early morning raids throughout the country over the past three weeks.

According to the South African police, the “Operation Fiela-Reclaim” campaign has netted illegal weapons, narcotics and counterfeit goods, directly linked to the surge in xenophobic violence last month. Civil society organisations, however, are concerned that abuses are being perpetrated in the name of quelling xenophobic violence.

Successive raids have taken place in Jeppestown, Hillbrow in Johannesburg, parts of Pretoria and Cape Town.

They were kicking people, they were kicking the doors … everyone was shocked about why this thing is happening.

by Linda, Zimbabwean national

Responding to the latest developments, the People’s Coalition against Xenophobia, a group of civil society organisations, has gone as far as to label the government operation “institutional xenophobia”.

Activists like the veteran trade unionist Steven Faulkner said it was inappropriate for the government to arrest people who are believed to be undocumented visitors to the country on a mass scale instead of tackling the root causes of crime.

“To equate crime with undocumented people in our society is not tackling xenophobia, it is legitimising xenophobia,” Faulkner told a press briefing in Johannesburg on Tuesday .

Activists were outraged last week when police and immigration officials raided the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, known to house hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers for at least the past 14 years.

Foreign nationals living at the camp and witnesses said the church was raided at 4am in the morning by heavy-handed police officials.

“They came [and] they were breaking the doors. They were rushing people even those with small, small babies they were being pushed,” Loyce Hove, a Zimbabwean national who suffers from a physical disability, said.   

“It was not nice. They were shouting, ‘Go back you mkwerekwere [derogatory term for foreigners]. Go to Zimbabwe.’ This was from the police,” the mother of three said. Another woman identified only as Linda because she declined to give her second name described the experience as “horrible” and “rude”.

She said they were not allowed to speak, or point out where their papers were kept. Their children, she added, were dragged out in their pyjamas.

“They were kicking people, they were kicking the doors … everyone was shocked about why this thing is happening,” she said.

At least 48 women and children were transferred to a temporary camp for displaced foreigners in Mayfair, west of Johannesburg, the South African charity Gift of the Givers said. Several hundreds, however, were held at the Johannesburg police station, awaiting their fate.

On Saturday afternoon, police finally revealed that 235 illegal immigrants had been arrested after a raid on “illegal buildings”. Police spokesperson Katlego Mogale would not say how many more were being held, except that once charged, they would be deported.

Police raids have drawn outrage from a wide spectrum of South Africans [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

A Johannesburg-based human rights organisation, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), instituted legal action against South African officials after it was denied access to detainees from the church on Friday .

Wayne Ncube, an attorney for LHR, said that while the courts had directed officials to grant LHR access to the detainees, access to just two detainees had been secured, raising concerns that due legal process is not being followed in cases related to Operation Fiela.

LHR returned to court on Tuesday to lodge an application of contempt of court against the South African government agencies involved, but settled out of court.

The state was ordered to postpone any deportations related to these raids for two weeks in order to ensure that foreigners from war-ravaged countries would not be sent back home. The Church has traditionally housed refugees from the DR Congo, Burundi, Malawi, and Mozambique.

“The numbers grew enormously as a result of the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe,” Christa Kuljian, author of Sanctuary, a book about the Central Methodist Church, said.

Kuljian told Al Jazeera the church has been a symbol of refuge, a sanctuary for foreign nationals and South Africans in the city for the past 14 years.

LHR will be granted access to detainees on Thursday, and has also received a list of 233 detainees from the police.
“We are still trying to verify whether all these people were detained after Friday’s raids,” Ncube told Al Jazeera.

The South African government has repeatedly dismissed criticism of Operation Fiela-Reclaim, insisting that it is not aimed at foreign nationals living in the country.

In a statement released earlier this week, the government described the operation as aimed “to rid the country of illegal weapons, drug dens, prostitution rings and other illegal activities”.

Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba told local media on Tuesday that Operation Fiela is about the state reorganising life in areas that are blighted by crime, and police have acted on information around arms caches and drug dens. But activists say the Sesotho word ‘fiela’ insinuates ‘sweeping up’ – and by arresting illegal immigrants, the government was equating them with ‘dirt’.

At the last press briefing on Operation Fiela on May 8, Presidency Minister Jeff Radebe said that 265 suspects had been arrested and charged with 150 cases of public violence. A further 165 undocumented foreign nationals were said to have been arrested at the time, while 423 suspects wanted in connection with other crimes, were said to have been traced.

According to LHR, however, some 60 South Africans have been mistakenly detained during Operation Fiela as they could not immediately prove their South African citizenship. 

Meanwhile, the operation continues.

“They must remember we are also human beings,” says Hove, a former resident of the Methodist Church.

“They must also check our side of view. It’s not like they are doing raids because it is nice, it’s like xenophobia.”