Fears Over the South African Government`s Response to the Xenophobia Crisis


12 June 2008: Fears Over the South African Government’s Response to the Xenophobia Crisis


The xenophobic violence that started on 11 May 2008 came as a big shock to the people of South Africa and, judging from its response, it came as a surprise to the state. Since the beginning of this year, isolated incidents of xenophobic violence were reported in Mamelodi, Attridgeville and Diepsloot, all in the Gauteng province. The reaction to these incidents came mostly from local government level and there was no response from the national government.

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Last month the country was confronted with the worst violence since the apartheid era, starting in Alexandra and quickly spreading to Thokoza, Katlehong, Reigerpark, Diepsloot, Kwazulu-Natal, Western Cape, Mpumalanga and North West Province. Scenes of arson, looting, assault, people being set alight and police reacting with shotguns were shown on local and international television. Soon churches, non- governmental- and international organisations were asking the national government to intervene and deploy the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to support the South African Police Service (SAPS). The situation rapidly deteriorated. More than 50 people were killed and 50 000 people displaced in the first week after the violence started. It was clear that the SAPS at local and provincial level could not contain the situation and needed urgent reinforcements. Criticism against the government and its response to the violence increased daily. Questions were asked about whether the government had any intelligence that these incidents would happen and why was the military not deployed earlier? Did the state react appropriately?


With the planning of the 2010 Soccer World Cup well on its way, the reaction of the Security Forces and Disaster Management are of great concern.


The incidents of the last few weeks and the reaction of the state could be compared to the events that took place in the United States in August 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. The consequences of Katrina were so devastating that it soon became clear local authorities and the State of New Orleans could not handle the situation. The federal government however left it to the State to handle. The devastation of Katrina was seen on televisions worldwide and the US government was strongly criticised for not intervening and supporting the state of New Orleans. The federal government only then intervened and sent 58, 000 soldiers from the National Guard to support the local and state authorities with search and rescue, emergency relief and the prevention of looting. International- and welfare organisations also immediately provided support. The criticism against the federal government was that the reaction was too late, coordination was poor and there was a lack of leadership from the national level.


The scenario in South Africa was similar, just on a much smaller scale. The violence originally started in the Gauteng province and all response was left to local authorities and the provincial government of Gauteng. Response was left to local city councils and local police stations, supported by provincial disaster management structures and SAPS provincial Crime Combating Units. Both the SAPS and Disaster Management on provincial level immediately activated separate operational centres. These were however two separate centres and no personnel or communication were exchanged, working in isolation to such a extent that the United Nations (UN) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) asked for a meeting to try and coordinate between the two operational centres.


The violence quickly spread to the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape and the central government still did not intervene except for a meeting of the Inter- Ministerial Committee on Disaster Management. The question was also asked who must take the lead: Safety and Security, Local and Provincial Government or Home Affairs? It is still unclear who eventually did take the lead. Critical decisions on the status of the displaced people, refugee status or not, declaring geographical areas a disaster or not was delayed with more than a week making it difficult for officials to address the crisis. International organisations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Oxfam also could not act. Local NGO’s, churches and civilians gave most of the post conflict relief. Only after a lot of local and international pressure the xenophobic attacks were declared a disaster in Gauteng and Western Cape.


Because of a lack of guidelines from central government to the provinces, the provinces reacted differently to the situation. In the provinces worst hit by the violence, Gauteng and the Western Cape, the SAPS and the Disaster Management structures immediately reacted to stop the violence and support the injured and displaced. People did flee in their thousands to police stations and churches. This immediately brought problems such as sanitation, security, food and shelter. Because of the lack of response by the central government on the status of these displaced people, local and provincial government did not know how to react. Immediate actions were taken by organisation such as Oxfam, Doctors without Borders, The Red Cross, local churches and citizens of South Africa to provide food, medicine and shelter. Because of political differences in Gauteng and in Western Cape the responses in the two provinces were different. In the Western Cape the Democratic Alliance mayor of Cape Town, Helen Zille, asked for refugee camps to be erected with the help of the UN and that the SANDF be deployed to protect foreigners who want to return to the townships. The ANC prime minister in the Western Cape did not agree that soldiers are deployed or refugee camps be erected. This was very much in line with what the central government was planning: foreigners had two options, return to their country of origin or be reintegrated into the society. After two weeks some guidelines did come from central government, declaring xenophobic attacks and the consequences a disaster in Gauteng and the Western Cape. This allowed for temporary shelters to be erected - housing people for a maximum of two months - and helping people who want to return to their countries of origin or to be integrated into society.


One of the biggest concerns is that the National Joint Operational Centre (NATJOC) was only activated one week after the start of the violence indicating that on the operational and tactical level there was no coordination between the roleplayers. Although the National Disaster Management Centre was activated it was operating from a very well established and functioning Gauteng Disaster Management Centre in Midrand. There was however no liaison with the Provincial Joint Operational Centre (PROVJOC) that was established by the SAPS. Operations in Western Cape and Gauteng were planned and executed on provincial level. Because a NATJOC was not functioning from the start and no formal liaison with the National Disaster Management Centre exists, guidelines from national level were unclear. In Gauteng it became clear soon after the start of the violence that the SAPS, supported by Metro Police, would not stop it. It was soon clear that the SAPS restructuring which meant closing four of the seven Public Order Units, renamed Crime Combating Units, would back come to haunt them. The Province lost more than 700 Crime Prevention members, leaving them with just over 600 members based at three units in Pretoria, Springs and Soweto. These units were able to handle isolated incidents of xenophobic violence but when it spread they were not capable to deal with it. The support of the Metro Police was asked and they did support the police. Unfortunately they had restricted public order training and were forced to co-deploy with the police. The police also tried to withdraw the 700 Crime Prevention officers from police stations and redeploy them to the conflict areas. This was not successful. Public order operations need specialist training, equipment and units. Units must be trained in urban operations including crowd management, patrols, observation posts and roadblocks. It is not so much about numbers but more about well-organised units.


The worsening situation did leave the SAPS with no other option than to ask for the deployment of the SANDF. The request was made in term of 201(1) of the Constitution to the President on 13 May 2008 and approved on 15 May 2008.


A battalion of 21 Battalion was deployed the same night in support of the SAPS executing cordon and search operations. Allegations that the SANDF is not trained for tasks in support of the SAPS are unfounded: not only does the constitution provide for the deployment of the SANDF in support of the SAPS but the SANDF is also trained in urban and rural operations as well as peace keeping operations. This prepares SANDF-members for tasks such as crowd control, patrols, observation posts and cordon and search operations.


Members of the SANDF were very successfully deployed since 1994 in support of the SAPS to address gang violence in the Western Cape, violence in Richmond, KZN and peace keeping operations in Burundi, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The question was also raised why was the SANDF not deployed earlier? It is not easy to answer, because of a lack of intelligence the SAPS did not know that the violence was going to spread. They also hoped to contain it quickly. This did not happen and they asked for the deployment of the SANDF when it was needed, with the required results.


It is always easy to criticise after the fact. However, the question remains why the lack of coordination between the role players to address the incidents of xenophobic attacks? The National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structures and the National Disaster Management Centre handled many crises in the past, what went wrong this time? If this is how the 2010 Soccer World Cup is going to be handled it must be of concern. The violence and the consequences of the violence are not yet over. It would be advisable if
all role players involved do a serious post-mortem on what has happened and put processes and contingencies in place to prevent it from happening again.


Henri Boshoff, Africa Security Analysis Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)


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