History has a dirty habit of repeating itself. When the wave of xenophobic violence swept through South Africa seven years ago, claiming 67 lives and displacing thousands, no one could’ve bargained it would happen again. Former President Thabo Mbeki addressed parliament a month after the attacks, apologising for the loss of life while promising that government was doing all it could to ensure foreign nationals’ safety.
“[We] have gathered here today with heads bowed in shame, because of the immense pain…inflicted on fellow Africans in our country,” said the former president. And, yet, here we are again, the architects of our own shame. Lives have been lost, thousands have been displaced and the army is enforcing peace in different parts of the country. What on Earth is going on?
Government’s intervention criticised
In the wake of last month’s attacks, government launched Operation Fiela – a joint operation between the army and the police force – to quell the xenophobic violence and restore general law and order in the affected hotspots. The post-xenophobic intervention has led to 3914 arrests and is set to end in August. But “Fiela”, which means “clean sweep” in Sotho, hasn’t been without its detractors. Earlier this month, a coalition of civil societies including Section 27 and the African Diaspora Forum (ADF) issued a statement criticising the operation for supposedly enforcing “institutional xenophobia”.
“While these ‘clean sweep’ operations are conducted under the banner of crime-combating efforts, there seems to be an unfortunate pattern…to unfairly target foreign nationals – specifically undocumented migrants,” the statement reads. The ADF believes the operation has created a false link “between foreign nationals and crime, which is misleading…and does nothing to address the core problems around xenophobia”. The Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs has since replied, denying the supposed targeting while reiterating their support of the operation.
“[We] find it unfortunate that there are suggestions that this operation is targeting foreign nationals,” committee chairperson Lemias Mashile said in a statement.“The committee reiterates its support for Operation Fiela and any other initiative aimed at dealing with elements of criminality and general lawlessness within the country, ” he said.
“We cannot party while our brothers from across are targeted…”
Marc Gbaffour isn’t buying it. The chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum has criticised government’s intervention, calling it discriminatory. “We initially welcomed the operation, but after some time it seemed like it was targeting the migrant community. These are the very people who were victims of the preceding xenophobic violence,” says Gbaffou. He further mentioned how ADF, as part of a coalition of other civil society groups, is taking a stand against government’s plans to celebrate Africa Day on the 25th of May during the ongoing xenophobic tension.
“We all wanted to celebrate Africa Month but we cannot party while our brothers are targeted for the mere offense of being from another country,” he says. “Why is it that after a raid, the government announces that the drug dealers are from such and such a country? They never do that with South Africans. We cannot celebrate while migrants are continuously painted as criminals.”
“With heads bowed in shame…”
Where to from here? The media frenzy has died down and the #NoToXenophobia hashtags have long since been swallowed up by the Twittersphere. But things are still fraught. Human beings are still being “swept” and according to the Home Affairs Portfolio Committee, more than 2000 foreign nationals have returned to the countries of their origin. We don’t seem to have a solution we all believe in. We need to collectively map a way forward – and soon. Or else we’ll find ourselves exactly where we are now – people dying and our heads bowed in shame.
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