The recent xenophobic attacks

South Africa’s quick fixes

Our author Kwanele Sosibo deplores the haphazard approaches towards recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

South Africa’s quick fixes

Hasan and Husain Essop, Athlone Superette, 2014. Images courtesy of the artists and Goodman Gallery

By Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo deplores the haphazard approaches towards recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, explaining that the raids on Johannesburg’s CBD were just drastic attempts to deflect from much deeper social problems.

Perhaps few things could explain South Africa’s attitude to xenophobia better than its rolling raids which in April swooped Johannesburg’s CBD and the former refugee crisis at the Central Methodist Church. The Methodist Church had under former leader bishop Paul Verryn housed thousands of foreigners, mostly Zimbabweans, in its premises. These had been slowly evacuated since his departure from the church at the end of last year.

In the initial sweep of “Operation Fiela” – specifically the raids on Johannesburg’s CBD – about four hundred people were arrested. Among those were 235 believed to be illegal immigrants. They were said to be transported to the country’s repatriation centre, Lindela.

Human rights groups called these raids and others around the country, which were conducted with the home affairs department, army and police, “acts of state xenophobia”.

The raids, purportedly part of a joint operation on crime hotspots following this year’s successive waves of xenophobic attacks, characterises the country’s approach to xenophobia as one of: “Find them, arrest them and deport them”.

First you acknowledge that people have been brutalised. You house them in refugee camps. You facilitate voluntary repatriation and reintegration. Then you find, arrest and deport illegal immigrants in an operation that conflates their circumstances with criminality. As department of home affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete said, “If you are in the country without documents, it’s a crime and you’re a criminal.”


Men carrying sticks and stones was during the anti xenophobia march in Durban. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Men carrying sticks and stones was during the anti xenophobia march in Durban. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy


This is a landmark shift from home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba’s earlier statement, that South Africa’s priority was to secure the environment for non-South Africans living in the country. But after diplomatic fallouts with its “brother countries”, with multi-lateral mudslinging directed at how South Africa has run its camps and managed the situation, gloves appear to have come off, with government intent on instituting what is evidently a two-pronged approach. One aspect seems to be aimed at appeasing the volatile elements stoking the attacks by a show of force; hence the raids. The other is aimed at portraying a tough stance on “brother countries” for not “picking it at their own lice” to paraphrase the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini.

After roundly criticising and censuring the Zulu king for his remark – an unfortunate metaphor for “each country must solve its own problems” – the state appears to have, finally, taken him at his word. What the government should actually do is: solidify the long-range projects of firming up early-warning systems, ensure efficiency for asylum seekers at home affairs level as well as solid integration solutions and structural economic changes. Instead, it uses state organs to play to its constituency, by instituting visible, PR-friendly quick-fixes. The scepter of the upcoming 2016 municipal elections, where the ruling party, the African National Congress, has a tenuous grip on power in many urban centres, cannot be ignored.

What the administrative acts do not solve though, are lingering issues in the country’s police service, whose state of affairs has left the country vulnerable to repeat, yet morphing xenophobic attacks since the last major flare up in 2008.

Gareth Newham, of the Institute for Security Studies points out that the numbers of public order policemen have dropped since peaking in 2010 and only increased by 1700 (to a figure of 4700) when compared with 2008. He argues that this figure is inadequate when looking at the number of incidents relating to public violence facing this country.

The collapse of crime intelligence also means that organised crime has increased by an average of 50 robberies per day since 2012. Significant, if one considers the deliberate, organised nature of attacks on immigrants.

Newham says when an upward trajectory in organised crime was noticed in 2006, the Gauteng SAPS and the Department of Community Safety created the “Gauteng Aggravated Robberies Strategy“ which consisted of just 460 experienced crime intelligence officers out of a total of 36 000 working officers in Gauteng. The strategy was implemented by 2009. “Within a few months they had increased the arrest, prosecution and conviction rates of the perpetrators involved in armed robberies, resulting in business robberies decreasing by 19,8 percent, house robberies by 21 percent and hijackings by 32 percent during the next two years.”

South Africans and the world would be wise to see what is happening now as the opposite of that – a haphazard, seemingly co-ordinated approach that merely feeds into the reactionary rhetoric that the country has tried to distance itself from. These are the signs of a country dealing not with the problems that face the continent, but chasing its own tail.

As far as artistic responses to xenophobia: These range from the utterly banal, the strange and to the heartfelt. Chitsanzo Changa’s “SA Top Ten Mix: Say No To Xenophobia” is a fusion of chart-oriented South African hip-hop songs. He leaves the anti-xenophobia rap, an unspectacular multi-artist collaboration, for the end.

Michael Elion, the Cape Town-based artist whose lampooned public sculpture of Ray Ban wayfarers titled Perceiving Freedom wanted in on the action. When Perceiving Freedom debuted, with its Ray Ban plug, its use of public money and its cheap link to Nelson Mandela (via a photo of the imprisoned leader wearing similarly shaped dark glasses), it was stenciled with a “Remember Marikana” logo, had graffiti sprayed on it and was mocked publicly, primarily by the Tokolos Stencil Crew.

A flustered Elion likened the public scalding to the atmosphere that precipitated the Rwandan genocide, much to the chagrin of his critics. Although he was quoted as saying he was fine with the piece becoming a living public artwork, he removed the lenses bearing the stencil and graffiti. Turning the piece into a response to xenophobia, One Africa/ One Love and My Freedom Is/ Your Freedom was printed on either side of the lenses. He scrawled something about Freedom Day and again claimed he was inviting people to deface the sculpture, even tying pens to the giant spectacles to entice the public. A few hours later, some interesting messages had turned up on the glasses, including “Follow me on Instagram,” “Fuck,” and “Big Bay Surf Lifesaving Club is awesome.”

 Hasan and Husain Essop, 786, 2014. Images courtesy of the artists and Goodman Gallery

Hasan and Husain Essop, 786, 2014. Images courtesy of the artists and Goodman Gallery


On the other hand, Hasan and Husain Essop’s UNREST, which opened at the Standard Bank Art Gallery in April, was perhaps less a response to xenophobia and more a well-timed intervention. Using manipulated photographs, the work touches on violence, displacement, terrorism and slavery with a self-assured poise and intelligence. Perhaps more than most works, UNREST, clearly years in the making, highlights the strangeness of the times South Africans find themselves in.


Kwanele Sosibo is a reporter at the Mail and Guardian, focusing mainly on culture and social investigations. He is founding member of the online, long-form journalism publication The Con



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