South Africa

The Army vs. Thembelihle: Where the truth lies

By Richard Poplak 5 May 2015

The troubled informal settlement of Thembelihle has been at war with the government over service delivery since 2001. On 30 April, the army showed up. Xenophobic violence? Then why were most of those arrested foreigners? Crime? Then why were so few criminals busted? Politics? Now we’re getting somewhere. By RICHARD POPLAK.

At around 3:30am last Wednesday, a young man named Sipho Dlamini was startled awake by insistent knocking. It was the sort of baton-on-zinc wake-up call that people have been experiencing in this country for generations. When he leapt out of bed and approached the source of the commotion, Dlamini couldn’t help but notice that his shack was surrounded by a phalanx of cops and soldiers. The law had shown up before dawn on this chilly morning, ostensibly to deal with the problem of xenophobic violence. But Dlamini wasn’t involved in xenophobic violence—in fact, he was involved in protecting foreign nationals from xenophobic violence—and he suspected that the men with guns might have arrived with something else in mind. When the first blows connected, he knew he was right.

Ah, comrade, they were very rough,” Dlamini told me.

The garbage strewn, unpaved, unlit shack-town of Thembelihle is located within the boundaries of Lenasia, deep in Johannesburg’s Region G, the poorest sector of the city. The astonishing thing about Thembelihle—isiZulu for “place of hope”—is that it doesn’t exist. Drive by the Trade Route mall, behind which Thembelihle is nestled, and there is no sign of the settlement. Drive further into Lenasia’s lower middle-class neighbourhoods, and the camp slowly reveals itself as a few ramshackle mkukus, then as a sprawling town-within-a-town. Like most of the destitute parts of this country, it is nearly invisible.

Since 2001 at least, the Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC) has endeavoured to be seen. The settlement was born in the 1980s, when a few families claimed a patch of ground on what once belonged to the SA Blocks Factory brickworks. The ‘hood was designated “Indian” under the Group Areas Act, but the Apartheid regime had bigger problems at the time. Running the community off the land was left to successive African National Congress governments. According to official reports, the settlement is built on a bed of dolomite, and therefore difficult and expensive to develop. (The TCC has commissioned a geo-technical study which disputes the government’s assessment.) The idea has been to relocate families to either nearby Lehae or less nearby Vlakfontein, which only means increased transportation costs and fewer amenities.

The TCC, which presents itself as the official voice of Thembelihle, has gone to war with the government, mostly over issues of electricity installation. But the fight has become much bigger than that. The first flare-up dates all the way back to 2001, when the government tried forcefully to remove residents. In the ensuing years, the committee has come to see itself as something of a political alternative to the ruling party. Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM)—a small worker’s party inaugurated in 2006—is the local answer to countrywide problems.

So when the jackboots arrived at 3:30am, it was the OKM T-shirt Sipho Dlamini was wearing that seemed to cause the most offence.

They said, ‘You are OKM’,” Dlamini told me, “and then they tried to hit me. They hit my hand, and I fought back.” Dlamini’s spotless shack was transformed into a cage-fighting ring, and when the cops and soldiers had done their work and swept through the settlement, he knew the deal:

This was a shakedown.

* * * 

When the violence directed at foreign nationals first broke out earlier this year following Zulu “King” Goodwill Zwelithini’s suggestions that non-South Africans go back to where they came from, there was an immediate outcry. In 2008, the xenophobic attacks were met with a tepid response from the government: few arrests, zero convictions. After Xenophobia II broke, concerned South Africans demanded something more substantial from their government, and on 20 April Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula confirmed that the army would be deployed in “volatile areas” in support of the police.

There was confusion regarding the particulars of this statement. There were those that believed the army would install itself in troubled communities much like it did during last year’s elections, when Bekkersdal and Alexandra were locked down by what resembled full-blown military invasion. But the government had in mind something more limited in scope: targeted operations in “hotspots” that would be conducted by cops with the army providing an imprimatur of authority, AKA much fancier weapons.

On 21 April, the Jeppestown hostels were hit in a pre-dawn raid. Then the Madala Hostel in Alexandra was dinged. But the picture was muddied following raids in Hillbrow, during which hundreds of undocumented foreign nationals were rounded up. The government’s limited scope seemed to widen into something more tangible and, sadly, recognizable: the hated police, backed by the army, were going into marginalised communities in order to clean them up. Once again, the perpetrators of xenophobic violence were largely left alone, while a whole slew of bit players were paraded before news cameras for photo-ops.

But when the police and the army rushed into Thembelihle on 30 April, the raids suddenly seemed like a play of a different order. After all, this was a traditionally difficult community, with a fifteen-year history of organised, often violent service delivery protests. Sure, there were the usual (for South Africa) attacks against foreign nationals that resulted in the looting of several shops. But the reason for the raid was that the settlement had been deemed a “crime hotspot,” and according to Gauteng police spokesman Kay Makhubela, “There have been a lot of house robberies and murders in Lenasia which have been linked to criminals operating from Thembelihle.”

Shortly after 3:00am on 30 April, military vehicles lined the poorly tarred road that ringed the settlement. The army does not invade the worst crime ridden parts of this country, so why, wondered the residents of Thembelihle, was it busting into their shacks on a Wednesday morning demanding passports, and enquiring as to the sartorial choices of its residents?

* * *

They weren’t interested in xenophobic violence or crime,” Siphiwe Segodi, Secretary of the TCC insisted, when I visited Thembelihle on Sunday. “We see this as nothing more than intimidation.” We were sitting around a spotless shack following a TCC financial meeting, during which fourteen members of the committee dealt with the books down to the last cent. The previous day, Segodi told me, the TCC had met in order to develop a position on the raids. They were not complimentary.

He took a sip of Iron Brew and said, “We clearly see that the deployment is a political act. There is crime here indeed. But we don’t agree that Thembelihle is a crime hotspot. The Commander in Chief of the SANDF—President Jacob Zuma—and the Minister of Defence claimed that they were deploying the army to deal with xenophobia. Were they lying about that? Because now, suddenly, it is crime hotspots. It is clear that if tomorrow Thembelihle had a reason to protest, the army would be here to stop us.”

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Photo: Thembelihle Crisis Committee secretary Siphiwe Segodi poses after a meeting of the group’s leadership on Sunday following last week’s raid. (Greg Nicolson)

It isn’t necessarily clear, but what is clear is that the TCC, like many community organisations in this country, has been remarkably active in their support for foreign nationals. When several local stores were looted on 24 February, the TCC raided shacks and returned fourteen major appliances to the aggrieved shopkeepers. “We do not support the attacks on our African brothers and sisters,” Segodi told me.

But the police/army raids in Thembelihle hit foreigners the hardest. Of 212 arrests, at least 198 were foreign nationals, and it is by no means clear that those arrested were illegals. The cops burst into shacks demanding papers and passports, and according to residents they arrested first and asked questions later.

A Somali shop owner who gave his name as Amin Ahmadhedros said that his shop was robbed of the previous day’s takings by police officers. “If something happens,” he asked me, “how can I run for the police? I don’t trust them. I am not a stealer. I am working here in South Africa. I have papers. They came inside my shop, stole, and I’m not going to report it.”

These sentiments were echoed throughout the community, and not only the foreigners. Members of the TCC told stories about the cops hitting dazed locals for bribes for offences ranging from keeping a pack of “illegal” cigarettes to wearing the wrong T-shirts.

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Photo: A Thembelihle store manager says that during the police and SANDF raid he was forced to pay the security forces as they arrested undocumented foreign nationals in the area. The store manager says he has the proper immigration documentation. (Greg Nicolson)

What makes the whole situation stranger is that on 26 April, the office of Gauteng Department of Cooperative Governance, Traditional Affairs and Human Settlements MEC Jacob Mamabolo released a statement announcing, “A special Freedom Day for people Thembelihle as government registers Thembelihle formally as housing project [sic].” This meant that after a decade and a half of struggle, Thembelihle was finally allowed to exist. Which didn’t mean that everyone was buying it.

We’ve heard everything before,” said Sipho Dlamini as he walked me through his house.

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Photo: A young foreigner working in a Thembelihle store says he was assaulted during the police and SANDF raid. (Greg Nicolson)

There they were: two conjoined shacks, impeccably maintained, alongside a small compound in which five Malawian men were standing. All of them had been hit in the raid, some of them arrested, all of them legal. But hundreds of the foreigners that had been rounded up were still in jail, with no access to representation; their kids had been shipped off to an orphanage at Eikenhof.

We are worried about our African brothers and sisters,” Siphiwe Segodi had told me. “On principle, we stand for working class rights and international solidarity. Those in the cells, their situation is very dire. We are concerned about their rights.”

This, then, is a footnote on a footnote of South Africa’s second “xenophobic” outbreak: a government, under the cover of righteousness, backed by the cops and the army, hits a community with a storied history of protest only days after it is promised fundamental change, while targeting members of a fringe political party and its members.

The facts are indisputable, but there were all sorts of theories floating around. As one young TCC member put it, “because the government has failed us so many times, they came here to clean us of all kinds of weapons, so when the protests start again they know there is no danger. So they will be free.”

Maybe. Maybe not. But when a force that could topple Mozambique rolls into a community that has less than nothing, such notions become must be taken seriously. We may be able to understand why the army visited Jeppestown, Alexandra, Hillbrow, although we may not condone the outcomes.

But why was the army in Thembelihle? It’s like Sipho Dlamini was thinking when the cops first started in on him:

This was a shakedown. DM

Main photo: Sipho Dlamini, a member of the Thembelihle Crisis Committee, holds the Operation Khanyisa Movement t-shirt he was wearing when police and the SANDF raided his shack in the informal settlement. The police asked whether he was a member of the political movement, suggesting the raid could have been about more than crime. (Greg Nicolson)

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