South Africa

Breakfast at Fiela’s: Jeff Radebe & Co. clear up ‘The Clean-Up’

By Richard Poplak 29 June 2015

The High Priests of Operation Fiela, or 'Reclaim' — the multidisciplinary onslaught that has made South Africans safer from crime, weapons, drugs and foreigners — has been an impressive success. This, at least, is the line we’re being sold by its champions. But how are they quantifying success? RICHARD POPLAK went to a breakfast to find out, and returned fuller, but dumber.

The eggs were runny.

I must emphasise this fact right off the bat: the eggs were liquid, and I was looking forward to firm eggs. I was obsessed with scrambled goodness, accompanied perhaps by heaps of fried swine, largely because I’d been force-fed dollops of space/time for the past hour, and my body—my brain, my digestive tract, it didn’t matter—needed something substantial to process.

Early last Friday morning I was summoned, along with the rest of “the media”, to Pretoria in order to be brought up to speed on Operation Fiela, the caper that isn’t a hyper-obscure, quasi-illegal, Zanu-PF-style dragnet mostly aimed at ridding the country’s cities of foreign nationals. “We don’t do this enough,” said Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency responsible for Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation, who chairs the Inter-ministerial committee (IMC) on Migration that quarterbacks Operation Fiela. By “this”, Radebe was referring to breakfasts during which his Avengers adumbrated vagaries regarding their role in the whole “clean-up” spiel.

Arriving at the podium about half an hour late were Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Pravin Gordhan—not quite an ANC A-team, but not too far off from one. According to Radebe, his IMC had been hounded by misconceptions. Using his finest kindergarten-teacher tone, he explained to us that the IMC consisted of fourteen ministers from fourteen different ministries, and was convened by President Jacob Zuma following “some violence in KZN.”

How the violence kicked off, and who was responsible for the kicking, was not addressed.

Instead, we were told that Operation Fiela was the government’s response to rising levels of crime. “We are through this operation reclaiming our communities,” insisted Radebe. Fiela was designed to address a grab-bag of criminal activity, including “human trafficking, possession of explosives, drug possession, murder, robbery, rape as well as the possession of illegal firearms, housebreaking, and theft.” So far, Fiela has resulted in 3,914 arrests, 1,650 of which were undocumented foreign nationals, as well as 2264 South African citizens arrested in connection with various crimes. In addition to this human haul, 5,645 foreign nationals were repatriated “of their own volition.”

Driven by on-the-ground intelligence (remember: I’m quoting here), Operation Fiela targeted criminal “hot-spots” in order to “create a conjunctive environment for all the people who are living in South Africa so that they can participate freely in economic and social activities.” The numbers, we were told, spoke for themselves: Fiela was a roaring success, and small children especially had been protected from the scourge of human trafficking—Radebe cited the successful arrest of an Ethiopian involved in something that I didn’t quite understand as proof of the operation’s efficacy.

But you likely know all of this. As did I. Just as I was wondering why I had driven all the way to Pretoria for an event that was guaranteed to be buried in the weekend news slush pile, Minister Gordhan stood up to say even less. While he was unspeaking, I mused on some of the stuff that wasn’t being articulated.

For instance: Was any of this actually legal?

Because I’ve seen how Operation Fiela operates, and it sure looked to me like some proper storm-trooper stuff. Pre-dawn raids, liberal use of batons, semi-automatic weapons cocked, zero warrants presented, hostels hit, shack doors kicked in, babies and mothers yelled at.

I am, of course, not alone in my circumspection. On 23 June, Lawyers for Human Rights launched a high court challenge. “The way in which this operation has been conducted in people’s homes is unlawful and unconstitutional,” read their statement, “to the extent that [raids] were carried out without proper compliance with the need for warrants, under a deliberate misapplication of the South African Police Service Act and at night in a manner which resembled an immigration clampdown that appeared to target foreign nationals under the auspices of a crime ‘clean up.’”

The other media present seemed as confused as I did. Why, several wanted to know, did the government need a branded “operation” in order to do its goddamned job, which is to keep the law-abiding citizens of this country safe from non-law-abiding citizens? Fighting crime, we pointed out, is a matter of policing, and South African crime rates, always high, have hardly peaked in the last few months. So: why Fiela, and why now?

No, no, no—didn’t we see the bigger picture? “Fiela is in a way the replica of this IMC,” Radebe intoned, patiently. It wasn’t about sweeping away migrants, but “launching a multi-disciplinary action, two a week, with each department applying the laws applicable to its mandate. That’s why it’s having maximum impact.”

As far as Minister Gordhan was concerned, “There are many areas in South Africa where we don’t have a normal situation—this will help create a level of systemic normality, where the different arms of the state are working in a highly coordinated way in order to lead to systemic change.”

By this time, I was really looking forward to the eggs.

With effortless effort, the two-hour breakfast inquest briefing was whittled down to about 45 minutes of jabber, and even then it was less nutritious than I’d had any right to fear. I cornered Minister Nhleko before he could flee, and pressed him on the whole human trafficking thing—which Home Affairs in particular has used to justify all manner of “innovations.” South Africa certainly has a human trafficking issue, but it isn’t going to be bested by ad hoc hotspot “operations”—we’re talking about gangster stuff, organised crime, and it needs to be wiped out by organised policing.

Nhleko looked at me sadly. “You in the media are adopting a boxed approach. But figure it like this: you’ve got a stuck vehicle, three people are pushing the vehicle, it’s a collaborative effort instead of just one person, and therefore there are better results.”

Um…?

“If we listened to Minister Radebe, the starting point before you stage such an operation, you need your operations on the ground—it’s more to do with gaining intelligence and then on the basis of that we actually plan out from an operational POV.”

Yeah, but how does that square with the dragnet, kicking-down-the-door approach that has defined the operation up ‘til now? What of the likely illegal, warrantless searches and seizures, the disproportional focus on foreigners?

But Nhleko was gone, and it was breakfast time. Eggs swimming in their own viscous goop. An ancient witticism from Samuel Butler popped into my head: A hen is only the egg’s way of making another egg.

I munched a muffin and thought that Operation Fiela was only the government’s way of making another Operation Fiela—a sub-legal, multi-disciplinary means of cracking down on “crime,” which was an excuse for cracking down on whatever the government felt needed cracking down upon. There will be more such operations, of that we can be sure. They’re big on bigness, and slight on details—just the way the government likes it.

I started getting a case of the insta-coffee paranoids and wondered: Shit, are the eggs a deliberate metaphor? But nah—that’s just the way you start thinking in a land which advocates the likes of Operation Fiela and its ilk. Your thoughts get runny. Just like the eggs. DM

Photo: Members of the South African Police raid Alexandra Mens Hostel during a midnight exercise aimed at searching for weapons used during xenophobic violence, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 23 April 2015. EPA/KEVIN SUTHERLAND

Read more:

  • Welcome to the State of Xenophobia in Daily Maverick;

  • Clean up the rubbish: What happened to the people of Central Methodist Church? in Daily Maverick.

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