When law and order is abused to drive xenophobic agenda

Many African migrants, who already face daily discrimination in South Africa, are now experiencing xenophobic violence and crime.

Some of these people have been beaten and their shops looted or set alight.

This latest wave of violence comes after months of xenophobic electioneering campaigns ahead of the elections earlier this year and the scapegoating of migrants for a variety of state failures, such as healthcare.

More recently the concept of “law and order” has been invoked to drive this xenophobic agenda.

Last month raids were carried out in the Johannesburg inner city to crack down on counterfeit goods, which led to a confrontation between traders and the police.

The suggestion is that in order to protect “us” South Africans, law and order needs to be restored by criminalising “them”

This confrontation was labelled as an attack on police officers and therefore “an attack on our state and its sovereignty”.

Earlier this year, Police Minister Bheki Cele claimed that foreign nationals posed a criminal threat.

The suggestion is that in order to protect “us” South Africans, law and order needs to be restored by criminalising “them”.

This is the mobilisation of xenophobic violence by building widespread support to criminalise and dehumanise migrants.

Indeed, I find that in conversations between the people I regularly meet at the bus stop, they generally support those who attack migrants.

Whereas our discussions were usually about the cost of living, the state of governance and, yes, even sometimes about our negative perceptions of the police, suddenly there was high praise for police dealing with “those illegal people”, “those criminals” and “taking action on crime”.

One woman in particular — someone who could easily be my mother, grandmother, sister, cousin or friend — went on and on about how “nice it is to see the police doing their jobs” and how they should “just get rid of or kill these criminals”.

Whether or not what she shared were views she has always had I will never know.

But what was striking was how she used the language of law and order, the same language used by political elites and those — including some media — who uncritically parrot those views.

And this isn’t unusual; xenophobic language is increasingly becoming very normalised.

To be sure, this is not to suggest that South Africa does not have a crime problem, among the many other crises plaguing the country.

But a distinction should be drawn when law and order is invoked to suggest that people are criminals because they are foreign nationals and to justify the heavy-handed treatment of migrants.

Political elites, some who are government officials, have consistently preyed on existing prejudice and warranted concerns and anxieties of the people.

Human beings have been described as “illegals”, which not only effectively criminalises a person’s mere existence, but also invokes imagery of hordes of “criminals” set to do harm.

This is an extremely difficult time for migrants and other marginalised people, not just in South Africa but all around the world.

Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has even gone as far as suggesting that foreign nationals are not only criminals but they are also disease ridden.

This cannot be separated from the ongoing xenophobic violence, which is only the most visible manifestation of prejudice.

As horrific as it is, it’s a continuation of the daily discrimination and dehumanisation faced by migrants.

It’s important to recognise how these are linked. As pointed out by David Smith, author of Less Than Human, among many other things, dehumanisation is a way of subverting inhibitions that prevent us from violently harming people – as we see them as less than human.

This is an extremely difficult time for migrants and other marginalised people, not just in South Africa but all around the world.

The virulent xenophobia of US President Donald Trump is well known. In India, threats of a citizenship list have sparked fear. In Hungary, draconian laws targeting migrants have been put in place.

Elites across regions are increasingly attempting to cast migration as a danger to everyone – deflecting from the real crises which are poverty, rising inequality, an unprecedented environmental crisis and a general sense of instability.

There are no easy solutions to this problem, both the current violence and the ways in which it is enabled.

According to reports, there were warnings of the violent outbreaks. The agencies involved should be held accountable for their failure to act on these warnings.

This also applies to politicians and government officials who spew hateful views, and to those of us who perpetuate them in our daily interactions.

Interventions that are rooted in evidence and understanding of the key drivers of violence are critical.

Most importantly though, we all must engage in a long-overdue reckoning with the country’s extensive history and present practice of using exclusion as well as law and order as ammunition when mobilising for violence.

This needs to be urgently addressed, otherwise we will continue to be needlessly divided – while natural resources and poor black people, irrespective of our nationalities, continue to be exploited by elites.

Koketso Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. She’s an Atlantic Fellow for racial equity; one of the inaugural Obama Foundation Fellows and is an Aspen New Voices senior Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti