Deploying the Army for xenophobia is morally wrong

2015-04-21 16:07

Deploying the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to xenophobic attacks hotspots is morally wrong. I am not a legal fundi, therefore I will not contest the legality of the decision to deploy the Army to Alexandra Township in Gauteng and some parts of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Here I am concerned with arguing that even a legally correct decision can be irrationally applied, decontextualized and ultimately prove harmful once implemented, which may bring to question its very legality. Anyways, I am a reader in social sciences.

All South Africans (at least those I have access to online) have stood in unity condemning and demonstrating against the xenophobic attacks in the country. I think we are all called upon to also stand in unity in how we respond to this scourge that has ravaged some of our communities. The first step must be to condemn government and request that they recall the army from our streets. Yes there are xenophobic attacks but there are no war zones in the country.

An army is the ultimate show of force and violence for any state, whether in defence or attack of enemies. By deploying the army we create an image of civilians as being an enemy of the state – this is serious and deserves to be rejected. When King Goodwill Zwelithini declared war on xenophobia yesterday, little did we know it would take the literal sense. Yes, the Minister of Defence (Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula) says the army will not take the lead, it will merely be on the background; yet the very Minister also says that the army is being deployed for them (the state) to show their presence. How do you show presence without being intimidating, if your intention is to provide a deterrent measure for violence?

The Minister expressed confidence in the Police Service and that they had not lost the battle. However, the same Minister expressed that “We are now regaining authority of the state. We cannot have people riding on the back of innocent South Africans”. The paradoxes are many, yet these are not my single occupation. There is another paradox in that the Minister went into the meeting in the Alexandra township police station under the guise of ‘assessing the situation and getting an update from the police’. Yet, just after emerging out of the meeting, the Minister was telling the media that the army will be deployed. This seems sketchy.

Either, the Minister went there already knowing that the army will be deployed, as she has no authority to deploy the army without informing the Commander-in-Chief Jacob Zuma who was not in attendance in the meeting. Or the Minister decided on deployment and informed Zuma, without giving him opportunity to apply his mind. Both cases would prove problematic but they are not my preoccupation. The Minister did not even tell of any advice of the Defence Intelligence Unit in collaboration with that of the Crime Intelligence Unit (which would provide some triangulation of information) in assisting her to form her view. The absence of good intelligence in the actions of either police (in Marikana) or the army (in Central African Republic) has already lost us lives through the barrel of the gun.

You cannot take a political decision to deploy the army. Whether it is because of diplomatic pressure from African countries or because you want to showcase who is ultimately in charge of the country. Such approach would be callous and irresponsible. If we have caved in to diplomatic pressure it is important to understand the implications of such for future relations and the backfoot position it puts South Africa in. Yet, if the army is deployed to ‘show who is boss’, it is dangerous because it confirms that leaders in government are no longer confident that they can provide sound and integral leadership to the communities they lead.

History of violence

Mapisa-Nqakula prefaced the deployment by asserting that in 1994 South Africa’s first democratic government promised not to use its army against citizens. This, partly informed by the brutal history of apartheid state violence meted out on civilians by using the then nefarious Defence Force. She further stated that the army does not have pepper spray and batons, is in capable of crowd control and ultimately is not suitable to deal with the current situation. Yet, within minutes she was deploying what many call ‘the dogs of war’ which have no place in communities.

Communities such as Alex, Umlazi, Isipingo, Jeppes Town hostel have a deep sociological history of violence. In saying what I shall say, I am guided by works of social scientists that assert something along the lines of ‘to explain is not to excuse’. However, we need to confront deeply embedded roots of violence in our society. South Africa has not suddenly become a violently brutal society with the emergence of xenophobia. For how long did the City of Cape Town try and request the deployment of the army to deal with gangs that were terrorising (and continue to in some parts) communities within the metro? Yet the very government deploying an army today rejected those requests. Was it rejection on political grounds or on substantive and ethical grounds? The jury is still out as it is on today’s decision.

What we failed to do in 1994

Upon the ushering in of democracy we failed to destroy apartheid sites of violence in the form of townships, hostels and farms. Townships were reserves and holds of black labour, often with one entry point and one exit point, systematically designed by the apartheid state for them to be able to corner citizens in an ambush violence and raids whenever the state so pleased. Instead of integrating citizens and reimagine these township communities, in 2001 we went on an Urban Renewal Programme (URP) targeting townships. What were we hoping to renew? Apartheid’s destitution and destructive spatial make up of these areas? Should we not have decided to re-plan and allow voluntary relocations by citizens from these areas that were never seen as conducive for human residence?

Hostels are a second generation of a destructive housing instrument used by the colonial and apartheid governments for migrant labours – that being compounds. Many scholars, in South Africa Buhlungu and Bezuidenhout, have written on how these compounds were ‘landscapes of labour control’. Compounds also made it easy for the mining industry to impose the following controls during the colonial and apartheid eras; spatial control, reproductive control, associational control and political control (Bezuidenhout & Buhlungu, 2010) and the control was “exercised over them [mineworkers] by management through the police and mine security forces” (Allen, 2003:192).

Eventually people used their ‘concentration camps’, which were these compounds to politically mobilise. Eventually in the late 1980s the mining industry in cahoots with the state resorted to hostels, which still resembled many forms of control and violence – of course not all hostels germinated out of the mining industry. Yet, post-1994 all targets to convert hostels and turn them into living spaces that have a new shape, form and culture have not been met adequately across board.

The farms were other sites of violence (the recent unearthing of an unmarked mass grave in KZN, South Coast bears testament) in how the farmworkers were treated and their labour exploited. Today, farms continue to be sites of violence through the violent evictions of farmworkers, the shooting and killing of both farmworkers and owners. What did we not do post-1994? We did not give humanity to farmworkers and we did not create communities of common interest between the workers and the owners; these can be achieved through giving farmworkers a stake in the farms and ensuring that spaces some workers now identify as their ancestral land are not just destructed at whim.

Going forward

Our history of brutal violence haunts us, lives in us and amongst us. We did not embark on any meaningful project that many post conflict reconstruction approaches demand. Somehow, we sold a rainbow nation in perfect harmony and ready to take on the world in unison. Absolutely a deliberate false image and we all know this. This embedded post-traumatic stress in our society needs serious attention. The sight of an army on the streets of our communities can only communicate an image of citizens who are now collectively (as their communities are taken over) being condemned as savages, murderers and brutalisers. Yet we know this is untrue; however, we can never know the impact of this army deployment on already vulnerable and suffering citizens.

The community of Katlehong showed us what needs to be done, we need to mobilise communities to isolate the violent elements and take ownership of their space. We all agree that the perpetrators of violence are in the minority. Community Policing Forums (CPFs) should be the first point of call. Citizens at this juncture do not need a show of force, it psychologically damages and further creates distance between leaders and citizens – a calamity that has been increasing over the past decade much to the admission of both COSATU and the ANC. This admission is what they term ‘social distance’, it is not me manufacturing it.

Why are leaders not taking off their ties and high heels, going to communities to engage in frank conversations with citizens in jeans and T-shirts? Why are people like Paul Mashatile, once acclaimed as being deeply rooted in Alex, not being asked to go and engage citizens? Furthermore, many of the black middle class people participating in marches, talks and discussions online and in faraway areas from the affected communities are born in these communities experiencing violence. Why are they not descending to the communities? Why is our activism one-sided and only about raising amenities for displaced foreigners? Who is providing not only psychological support for community members who are affected by the events but also material support? Half of South Africans are under food insecurity. These are the perils of structural violence through unemployment, poor education, no concrete development path and astronomic inequality.

I know it is difficult to raise these now. I am not excusing brutality against foreign nationals; I am simply arguing that our response can either reproduce or abate violence. Our response can also easily manufacture an escalation of a deescalating confrontation. Deploying the army for political reasons birthed Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya etc. It is a destructive exercise; it is what actually threatens to break a social fabric that is almost shattering. Our leaders are called upon to descend and be amongst the people, not to ‘pop in and show face’, to listen, to engage.

Some people say we talk a lot in South Africa. Perhaps in some sections we do. But the poor people on the ground have been rendered voiceless (by us). Hardly are they invited to media discussion shows, instead we (people not even living in those communities) are often called upon to pontificate on their conditions, lived experiences and communities. Simply because the media must carry ‘thoughtful voices’ (read politically correct, not raw and brutally honest). These are things that are destroying our society. Deploying the army simply says ‘we do not wish to talk to you, one wrong move one bullet’. You do not solve the xenophobic attacks problem we have in that manner.

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