Humanitarian Issues

The Military is Not the Answer to South Africa’s Xenophobic Violence

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A South African soldier with an ammo belt. Image: Cpl. Jad Sleiman, U.S. Marine Corps/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by the Fund For Peace (FFP) on 22 April 2015.

A rapid rise in anti-immigrant violence has emerged in South Africa, with at least seven people killed and many more local immigrants’ properties and businesses destroyed. In response to this wave of xenophobic crime, the South African government announced the deployment of troops to areas that have been most affected by the violence, including parts of Durban in Kwa-Zulu Natal and the impoverished district of Alexandra in Johannesburg.

The Defense Ministry’s decision to send the military to these volatile areas is most likely the result of increasing international outcry over the anti-immigrant violence. A journalist from Johannesburg’s Sunday Times photographed and published the bludgeoning and stabbing of a Mozambique national, Emmanuel Sithole, by two men in broad daylight in Alexandra. This follows the attack last Monday on a Zimbabwean couple who were shot and injured in Alexandra. According to the BBC, 5,000 people have been left homeless due to attacks on immigrant properties and businesses. The home countries of many immigrants in South Africa have reported higher numbers of their citizens trying to repatriate since the violence started. Nigeria has even begun to evacuate its citizens from South Africa, according to the International Business Times.

History would suggest that the South Africans have every reason to be worried about how this situation may play out. In 2008, xenophobic violence resulted in 62 deaths of both immigrants and South Africans concentrated in the same areas that are currently being affected. Troops were also deployed then to address the violence, marking the first time that the military were instructed to halt unrest since the end of apartheid.

Although the amount of military personnel being deployed this week is not yet clear, the government’s pledge to use troops as a solution to deal with the spike in xenophobic violence is problematic and deeply worrying. By involving the military, the South African government is labeling anti-immigrant violence as a national security concern, rather than an issue of criminality. According to South African newspaper Mail & Guardian, the last time this occurred in 2008, Lawyers for Human Rights disagreed with the government’s deployment of troops as a solution to anti-immigrant violence, arguing that unlike the police, the military was not trained to investigate and prosecute crimes committed against foreigners. The same is true once again.

The deployment of military forces within local communities is, in and of itself a declaration by the government that it is significantly escalating the level of force that it is willing to use. Using troops instead of police to quell the violence in Durban and Alexandra could actually worsen the situation –military forces (in nearly any country) are not designed for civilian law enforcement duties, and thus not adequately trained or conditioned to operate with and in proximity to civilians. Local communities may equally feel increasingly threatened by the troops’ presence, which is reminiscent of the apartheid era when South African troops would police predominantly black areas. Without good training and clear (and reasonable) rules of engagement, an already tense situation could erupt due to actions of the security forces.

The government’s decision to deploy troops in response to xenophobic violence begs the question of why. Is it because existing police forces are incapable of preventing and dealing with criminality and localized violence? If so, the South African government clearly needs to empower the police and give them the capacity to fulfill their role. (The follow-up question of course being, why has this not already occurred and why is it not [being] addressed now?) However, if the South African government is simply deploying troops as a public relations exercise, such that they are seen to be taking decisive steps through a show of force, then this presents an even bigger problem where the government is using the military as a political tool to distract from the country’s underlying issues. In an article in Time, Aryn Baker writes that the greater problem is “the government’s inability, 21 years on, to reverse the poverty and income disparity that defined black lives in apartheid.” The 25% unemployment rate is a problem that requires better governance and inclusive economic strategies, not military intervention.

The deployment of troops in South Africa shares parallels with the National Guard’s intervention in Ferguson, Missouri last year. In both cases, military intervention was used ostensibly to prevent further escalation of localized violence, a role normally and reasonably filled by the police. The two times that the National Guard intervened in Ferguson produced images that were hauntingly similar to those of the Civil Rights Movement, with lines of troops carrying shields facing protestors on the streets. The troops’ presence in Ferguson not only exacerbated the insecurity on the ground but also did not adequately address the underlying issues of racial discrimination and structural flaws in the local police force.

At best, the deployment of troops by the South African authorities will serve as a temporary band-aid solution and at worst could further inflame the situation. The government should instead beef up the police presence and focus more on pursuing and prosecuting the criminals behind the violence rather than seeking a policy that might look to the viewers of cable news as though they are acting tough, but are actually risking a significant conflagration. Further, South African authorities need to focus their efforts on addressing the underlying causes of the violence, such as the anti-immigrant sentiment in low socio-economic districts of South Africa driven by assertions that immigrants are taking jobs away from impoverished citizens. Dealing with the inflammatory rhetoric of the likes of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini would be a good place to start. A defusing of the sharp rhetoric, and conciliatory, calming signals from leaders in government would be helpful, as what South Africa needs now is de-escalation.

Ania Skinner is a contributor to FFP.

J.J Messner is the Executive Director of FFP.

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