Johannesburg - The hardline approach by authorities against foreign nationals, coupled with operations by police to weed out criminals, has pitted the local government with civil society, including even sex workers, and sent shockwaves among migrants in the South African economic powerhouse of Gauteng.
A series of raids in the central business districts of Johannesburg has evoked memories of decades ago when foreign nationals, mostly Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Mozambicans and Malawians, used to play cat and mouse with the men and women in blue.
With the launch of the Operation Fiela, an initiative that sees police joined by officials from various agencies and government departments, including Defence and Home Affairs, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has had his way.
In 2017, Mashaba instituted a court bid to force the Home Affairs Ministry to take action against undocumented immigrants and general lawlessness in Johannesburg and its outlines.
While a date is yet to be issued on the court roll, the launch of Operation Fiela has come as a major boost to his hardline stance.
Since the Democratic Alliance took Johannesburg metro from the African National Congress in 2016, there has been a shift towards harsher treatment of immigrants.
In 2017 some of Mashaba's utterances, widely viewed as xenophobic and anti-foreign, were blamed for the wave of violence against foreign nationals.
The violations, which saw some foreign nationals killed and their property burned down, spread to the capital Pretoria targeting mainly Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Malawians, Somalis, Ethiopians and Pakistanis, among others.
Foreign nationals in Johannesburg are thus panicking at the prospects of deportations with the launch of the current crackdown.
Zimbabwean Nickson Dube (36) is reminded of the heady days when law enforcers pounced on foreigners, bundled them into the blue-and-white vans following which they would be sent to the western Lindela Repatriation Centre before deportation.
“I remember around 2006-7 every time I saw a police vehicle, the only thing on my mind was to tactically walk towards the other direction without showing any passerby that I would running away,” recalled Dube.
The unsettling possibility of deportations is amplified by thousands, if not millions, around the country.
While Operation Fiela is targeting dilapidated properties and criminal hideouts across the city, according to Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula, the operation has seen illegal migrants being caught in the crossfire.
Monica Ndlovu (41) from Soweto, south-west of Johannesburg, had heard from friends and relatives in the inner city life had become unbearable.
"Ngizwe nje abantu baseHillbrow bethi lezinsuku kunzima,” she said in the Zimbabwean Ndebele dialect, which is related to the local Zulu.
It loosely translates to “I heard from people in Hillbrow that life is so hard these days”.
Civic groups working to protect the rights of migrants last week held a meeting with City of Johannesburg officials to get clarification on the recent operation, only to be told the city had no part in the crackdown.
“We met officials from the mayor’s office last week, they said the office of the mayor is not involved in Operation Fiela,” said Ngqabutho Mabhena, general secretary of the Zimbabwe Communist Party.
Marc Gbaffou, African Diaspora Forum chairman, described Operational Fiela as a populist agenda by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
In an interview with CAJ News, Gbaffou said the organisation’s offices in Johannesburg had been inundated with calls from “terrified” individuals.
“There have so many human rights abuses suffered by women and children who had their doors broken down in the middle of the night. Some of their valuable properties were destroyed,” said Gbaffou.
“Communities have agreed to fight crime side by side with their African brothers. It is bad when crime fighting campaigns are used to target foreigners,” added Gbaffou.
The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke Gender Justice and National Movement of Sex Workers in South Africa condemned the raids.
“Police raids, which are labelled as efforts to get rid of the drugs in communities, are nothing but publicity stunts that perpetuate stigma and discrimination against sex workers and foreign nationals,” Lesego Tlhwale, SWEAT media advocacy officer, noted.
Tlhwale said sex workers in particular regularly found themselves in the crossfire of community anger about crime.
“And when this happens, sex workers are often targeted and victimised by the police as they are often associated with drug use, abuse and trafficking.”
She said the trend was noted when similar raids were carried out in February last year in Rosettenville and Pretoria where sex workers and foreign nationals were victimised, displaced and their properties torched.
The fiery Mbalula said the objectives of Operation Fiela are to stamp out crime in areas criminals had declared “no go” areas.
He said those targeted would include gangs and some undocumented foreign nationals.
“Operations must restore community faith in police. Communities have developed a tendency of protecting criminals by not providing information on crimes or suspects and also by attacking the police. Our aim is to win back our communities and deal with the illegal acts of vigilantism,” the minister said.
There was no immediate comment from Nigerian Union South Africa chairman, Chief Emeka Johnson, at the time of going to press. – CAJ News