Organised crime is a serious and growing menace in South Africa. And with its debilitating social and economic effects on the country, it requires immediate attention. However, the sources of organised crime and its perpetrators are highly contested.
In South Africa much of the blame for crime – especially organised crime – is put on foreigners living in the country, resulting in increased xenophobia. But this is misleading, as South Africa’s long history of the problem has been linked to apartheid, and clearly predates the arrival of particularly African immigrants, who mostly came to the country only after 1994.
The perception of foreigners dominating organised crime in South Africa is most evident in the recurring incidents of xenophobia. Xenophobic attacks are often framed as social rage against crime committed by foreigners, rather than a symptom of the country’s endemic socio-economic problems such as unemployment, corruption, poverty and skyrocketing retail prices.
Framing xenophobic incidents as a response to crime diverts attention away from these issues, a convenient outcome for the government, which has been quick to support this narrative. This has led to some justifying their attacks against fellow Africans, particularly Nigerians and Somalis, as an attempt to cleanse communities of pervasive drugs. President Jacob Zuma concurred with this sentiment, stressing that, ‘We cannot close our eyes to the concerns of the communities that most of the crimes, such as drug dealing, prostitution, and human trafficking, are allegedly perpetuated by foreign nationals.’
Politicising crime in this way is disingenuous – it blurs understanding of the true social, political and economic drivers of organised crime, and misconstrues the triggers of xenophobia, both of which hold implications for appropriate policy responses.
The belief that organised crime in South Africa is run by foreigners is anchored in harmful clichés that connect nationals of different countries to various crimes. For example, Nigerians are linked to drug trafficking, fraud and internet scams; Tanzanians to heroin trafficking; Zimbabweans to armed robberies and cash-in-transit heists; Russians and Italians to mafia and gangsterism; and Chinese nationals to wildlife crimes. Pakistanis are linked to human trafficking, Mozambicans to arms smuggling and house robberies, Somalis to violent extremism and terrorist financing, and Botswanans to poaching.
These clichés belie the complex nature of organised crime and the multiplicity of actors, including the corrupt networks of local syndicates and the alleged involvement of South African law-enforcement personnel.
The only way of knowing whether foreigners are involved in crime is through analysing the South African Police Service (SAPS) crime statistics, which would help substantiate the percentage of crimes committed by foreign nationals compared to those involving locals. This is important not only for determining the extent to which foreigners are involved in crime in South Africa, but also for a better understanding of the sources of crimes for the purpose of developing effective responses.
The problem, however, is that the official crime figures released by the SAPS don’t contain sufficient information about the identity or country of origin of perpetrators or suspects.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) also has statistics that could clarify the conviction rate of foreigners. But the NPA annual report – the only public document that provides statistical information on the prosecution and conviction of crime suspects – doesn’t consistently provide information on the country of origin of those it convicts. For example, the entry for the conviction of Henry Okah (sentenced to 24 years in prison on 13 counts of terrorism in 2013) refers to him as a national of Nigeria, but makes no similar description for the defendants or suspects in the other cases dealt with that year.
This means that public knowledge regarding foreigners’ involvement in crime in South Africa isn’t based on solid empirical research. The lack of data or public access to it also means that when foreigners are arrested, their cases are generalised to strengthen existing clichés attached to their countries. Often such cases receive greater media attention than those committed by South Africans.
Given the violence associated with xenophobia, the need for empirical studies on the participation of foreigners in crime in South Africa is long overdue. Such studies would provide an evidence-base for effective responses to organised crime.
Of course, linking organised crime to foreigners is not new, nor is it unique to South Africa. Transnational organised crime, which cuts across national borders, has long been recognised as a global problem. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it generated US$870 billion in 2009.
Globalisation has driven transnational organised crime – including cybercrime, the trafficking of arms, drugs and people, and various environmental crimes – to unimagined global levels, and has made the crimes more widespread and their responses more complex. The increasing flow of goods, services and people coupled with porous borders, corruption and lawlessness have opened up spaces for the global underworld.
While few countries possess the capacity to deal effectively with transnational organised crime, the South African government must be pro-active in countering the problem. It should avoid the tendency – apparent in many countries in Europe and North America – to blame foreigners. The state should tackle internal weaknesses like corruption that provide a conducive environment for transnational organised crime.
In South Africa there appears to be little political will to strengthen the leadership and capacity of law enforcement agencies such as the NPA and SAPS. In particular, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (‘the Hawks’), and the State Security Agency, have been denuded of skills and experience.
Unless the public is informed and law enforcement agencies are enabled and encouraged to fulfil their roles effectively, perceptions about organised crime and who commits it are unlikely to change.
Martin Ewi, ENACT Regional Observatory Coordinator for Southern Africa, ISS
ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.
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