Three weeks ago I warned in Daily Maverick that it was up to us as vigilant citizens to ensure that government’s deployment of the army to combat xenophobia was not abused for ulterior motives. Public opinion on the deployment of the military was more or less split along the varying views of ‘it is a necessary evil’ to ‘it is about time’ to the most liberal view that it was to be denounced in toto. This debate as to when and whether at all the military should be deployed in Civilian Street has been raging as long as our new constitutional dispensation has been around. The pro vs. con agitators’ arguments are well known by now – roughly fluctuating between guarding against abuse of the military for political agendas (as under Apartheid) versus the jack boot view that State authority to deal with crime, unrest and dissent is to be embraced, no matter the means. (Of course the latter proponents only sing to that tune until their own neighbourhood, family or home become the unwilling targets of such ‘law and order’ exercise).
I already dealt with these issues in my previous piece and I even cautioned that government detractors of the deployment should avoid fear mongering about the military being abused for political expediency. Over the past few weeks and days, however, my warnings came back to haunt me. At first there were the rather matter-of-fact reports in the media about raids conducted by SAPS/SANDF in the Cape Town areas of Bellville and Parow. Foreign nationals, allegedly without the necessary documentation, were arrested during a raid on informal traders. Then early morning media reports on 8 May 2015 told of a building in Johannesburg Central being raided – again by SAPS/SANDF – apparently as it was a well-known haven for illegal immigrants. Also the Central Methodist church was not spared – a well-known shelter for the homeless, of which some happen to be, allegedly, illegal immigrants.
Several other reports of similar raids have emerged with government recently admitting that of the over 800 arrests so far, the vast majority (more than 700) are of people suspected of being illegal immigrants.
Surely something is amiss. Surely the logic minded among us should now start questioning the nature of these operations and more specifically the SANDF’s involvement therein? Remember now, the substratum or underlying reason for Zuma’s announcement was the fact people were rioting, assaulting and murdering in mobs, foreign nationals on the streets of KZN and Gauteng. Indeed the first raids were on hostels in Alexandra township where violent elements were threatening non-South Africans. The raid attempted to seek and confiscate unlawful and dangerous weapons which could potentially be used in planned attacks against foreigners.
So when Zuma’s deployment notice to Parliament, generated five days after the first raid, read that the SANDF would be deployed with SAPS to “maintain law and order”, there was on face value nothing sinister about it. Not at face value and certainly within the spirit of the then prevailing lawless mobs terrorising foreigners. But given the developments thereafter, one should probably in retrospect have been more concerned with two delightfully vague issues in the Zuma notice, hidden in plain sight. The notice refers to “maintain law and order” and “any other area” (where the need might arise to do so other than the mentioned two provinces).
Both these phrases are open to severe abuse. The fact that in two days a province’s informal traders (of which we know many are South African and non-South African alike), over 1,000km away from the violence, is raided by police and army, and further, that buildings which shelter all kinds of homeless people (not only illegal immigrants) are suddenly raided on the back of a deployment notice to “maintain law and order”, is not in line with the original purpose and intent of the deployment decision. Further proof of that is the fact that Lawyers for Human Rights (who has an exemplary record in defending human rights in SA) had to force government through order of court to grant their lawyers access to the detained foreign nationals this week. This was after it came to their attention that government was not affording the detainees the rights enshrined in the Immigration Act and that some of the detainees were possibly asylum seekers and refugees, which would make their imminent deportation illegal.
So even though one could argue that, technically speaking, to roundup of illegal foreigners is part of maintaining law and order, one has to wonder how does that promote the objective of stopping xenophobic attacks? If anything, government is in effect telling South Africans, don’t hate foreigners or act against them – we will victimise them for you by the unadulterated use of State force. Government can hollowly deny that it is targeting foreigners specifically all it wants, but it cannot explain away that nine out of 10 arrests during the raids is for illegal immigration allegations, nor why it sees fit to violate the Immigration Act, the detainees’ rights or the SA Constitution. These facts make it crystal clear that the wording of the notice was deliberately vague and too broad to mislead the public as to the true intention of these military backed operations. Its ambiguous nature creates the perfect backdoor for a hidden agenda. “Maintaining law and order” is a candy wrapper over a piece of arsenic chocolate and “in any area where necessary” is the box the poisoned sweets are packed in. It may be (and in fact is) delivered anywhere at any time in South Africa.
Imagine a deployment notice which basically provides an open-ended army activity in Civvie Street at any place and time in our country. That is exactly what Zuma has created and executed under the current notice. That is indeed what has played out. One would have to be gullible to the extreme to believe that these are the actions of a well-intended push against hate mobs. The deployment order is no more than a convenient but ultimately contrived launching pad for victimising and violating African foreign nationals in South Africa. It is a seek out, arrest and deport African foreigners exercise. In doing so government has, as rightly pointed out by some commentators, taken the paradoxical stance of condemning violence against foreigners whilst it in truth and in fact is unleashing the might of the State against the very foreigners it claims to protect.
The only question which remains is why. In reality government, through these actions, are doing exactly what king Goodwill Zwelithini was demanding prior to the xenophobic violence. Deport illegal immigrants. It is now attempting to do so on a massive scale with military intervention. Government promotes the bald faced lie that Zwelithini was misquoted, while in truth it now under the cover of a deceptively worded deployment notice in effect executes a royal decree. I, for one, have yet to be convinced that the raids of the kind conducted in Cape Town and Johannesburg even remotely necessitated the presence of the army. Some 300 soldiers are certainly not, in feet on the ground terms, going to bolster police ability in any way that 300 SAPS members would not be able to.
The army deployment was a ruse. It was a show designed to limit diplomatic damage by pretending to act decisively against foreigner hate. It also presented a handy opportunity appease a furious king who said what many of his most poor and desperate subjects think. The failure of government to address appropriately the socio economic conditions of the poor masses, while a small political elite (including the king) mercilessly rides the hell out of the gravy train is an issue that can only be dealt with by the planless and the greedy, through some act of appeasement. How does one appease the masses when you’re standing stark naked in front of those who are your voters and your subjects?
What easier move than, instead of admitting failure in delivering on hopes and promises, one blames a third party (foreigners) but then smartly covers ones disdain for them by platitudes about African brotherhood and humanity and through forceful army deployments and operations of ‘protection’ while in actual fact one hunts them down for deportation? If the military deployment was really for maintaining law and order, and not for targeting foreigners, why then while at it in Cape Town not deploy to the gang stricken areas of the Cape Flats? If the military deployment was really about maintaining law and order, and not about targeting foreigners, why deploy soldiers to the Johannesburg CBD to raid a building where there was no violence, when on the same day a mere 30km away in the streets of Soweto angry mobs were violently protesting smart meters by burning objects and stoning Metro Police? Surely it would be logic if the military dealt with those mobs under ‘Law and Order’ while the Metro police assisted with what is essentially a police function – raiding a building to prevent crime.
If the military deployment was not about targeting foreigners, why deny the detainees the rights afforded to them under the Immigration Act, or their right to access a lawyer while detained? Why does one need to be forced by an angry judge to respect the rights of these detainees if it was never one’s intention to victimise them? Welcome to the land where moral cowardice defends a leader’s hate speech as ‘misquoted’ only to then turn around and execute, with State machinery, the very mentality that he was spewing – under a false cover of benevolence towards those being targeted. Welcome to the State of Xenophobia, where government support is guaranteed. DM