South Africa - Borders, State Militarism and Xenophobia

Christopher McMichael

The South African government’s official policy on borders and immigration is coached in the language of human rights and opening up colonial era boundaries in Africa. But the reality is more authoritarian and brutal – economic migrants and asylum seekers, particularly from other African countries, are regular targets for violent harassment by the police, are illegally denied access to basic services like hospitals or sent to detention facilities. State officials are heavily invested in rhetoric about border security and constantly make ominous statements about foreign threats to the South African homeland, from transnational drug smuggling to rhino poaching. Of course, this is not novel or particular to South Africa. States have historically used physical borders and violence to delineate outsiders from citizens, while also combining military operations outside their territory with domestic policing. This is becoming even more apparent with the modern wars on drugs and terror, in which wars and operations abroad are combined with the extension of surveillance and restrictions on civil liberties. <--break- />

The media regularly repeats alarmist, unsubstantiated figures about illegal immigrations making Malthusian claims about how scarce jobs and services are being stolen. It has become increasingly acceptable to blame South Africa’s problems, such as massive inequality, huge rates of unemployment and pervasive violent crime, on migrants. The rhetoric used in the media and government were crudely, but accurately, mirrored by the participants in the xenophobic pogroms which last erupted in April 2015- “they’ take our jobs, “they” bring crime. But simultaneously, the government expects the rest of Africa to welcome the expansion of South African big business with open arms. South Africa’s self-image is of a hegemonic force on the continent, sealed off from poorer and less stable countries, a thinking which underpins much of border strategy.

The state response to xenophobic attacks in April 2015, which saw armed mobs hunting foreigners and attacking their small businesses in several cities, was to launch the national Operation Fiela (which depending on the translation means to sweep the streets/sweep the dirt). The police and military flooded the streets of trouble spots with armoured personal carriers and made mass arrests. But in practise, undocumented migrants were as much of a target as suspects implicated in xenophobic violence, and Government officials bragged about how many hundreds they had apprehended. However the state has vigorously denied that the Operation has become an attack on often desperately poor migrants, claiming that anyone abiding the law would have nothing to fear. But on the ground a more sordid picture emerged of the arrested being denied access to lawyers, torture in police custody and families rounded up on dark winter mornings. Even people with legal documentation to be in the country were simply arrested without explanation. This Kafkaesque situation, in which even being on the right side of the law provided no protection from the security services, is further evident in how officials refute that this has any xenophobic intent, while making inflammatory comments about foreign criminality. "In a press conference parliamentarian Tekoetsile Motlashuping claimed that there was no evidence that the April attacks were xenophobic but then threatened that anyone in the country illegally would be arrested “without mercy…. They (foreigners)  roam; they go to townships to occupy the economic space”. The phrase ‘no mercy’ is common in South African political language, with officials using it to underscore their ruthless approach towards both foreign and domestic enemies. This bellicose rhetoric is operationalized in regular mass raids and clampdowns, highly theatrical undertakings which in practise primarily serve to criminalise the poor. In the last two years, for instance, the city of Johannesburg held an ‘Operation Clean Sweep’ which attempted to purge the city of street traders and ‘Operation Ke Molao’ (It is the Law) which extended to vagrants, including police showing ‘no mercy’ by arresting blind beggars and impounding their crutches. In all these operations, nationality is less of a factor than class- the state will assault and arrest any poor people considered to be a social nuisance regardless of which papers they do or do not hold. Operation Fiela itself has now acquired a grandiose subtitle – Reclaim 2015, and alongside immigration will ‘address’ “drug dens, prostitution rings’’ and the illegal occupation of land and building by squatters. The last one indicates how the state’s solution to informal settlement of land, a popular response to the countries severe housing shortage, is to bring down the iron fist rather than to negotiate. Such a de facto militarised response integrates external border policy with domestic social control.

The promotion of regime of border surveillance and domestic sanitation operations can be understood as part of a deepening authoritarianism within the South African state. Although this preceded the presidency of Jacob Zuma regime, under his rule the government has become at once more secretive and more enabled to get away with often extreme violence against ‘security’ threats, most notably in the case of the Marikana massacre where police gunned down striking miners. Simultaneously, the Zuma years has seen the strengthening of conservative forces, with a lot more overt ethnic chauvinism and nationalist demagoguery entering the political discourse. At the very least the current hard-line border approach is just a matter of scapegoating foreigners for the structural inequality and poverty of daily life in the country, an easy source of frustration. However it seems more likely to encourage worse violence down the road, with the state viewing even more of both its citizen-subjects and people from elsewhere as ‘dirt’ to be swept away with an iron broom.

Christopher McMichael has recently completed a post­doctorate at the University of the Witwatersrand. His reserarch interests include war, state power and organised crime.