What’s in a name?

Cape Town, November27, 2018 – The South African Police Union says it doesn’t want the anti-gang unit shutdown, but it has serious reservations. It says it wasn’t consulted when the unit was established. The union is also taking issue with calling it the anti-gang unit, when it is in fact operating like a task force. eNCA’s Pheladi Sethusa unpacks the technicalities. Courtesy #DStv403

ON: Sweeping #OperationFiela

Operation fiela. Fiela in Sepedi means “sweep away”. This is the name my government chose as a response to the recent spate of xenophobic attacks in the country.

This year it started in Soweto, when “foreigners” were looted out  of the shipping containers that are their livelihoods. Some kicked, slapped, knifed and burnt. Our leaders said it was all down to criminality, not xenophobia but added that perhaps sharing business secrets with unemployed, discouraged South Africans would help- because it wasn’t xenophobia.

“Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost. They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners,” Lindiwe Zulu, Minister for Small Business Development (January 28, 2015)

Then last month “afrophobic” attacks (the chosen instigator this time) broke out in Durban and copycat attacks spread to other parts of the country. We were told lies about how many had died as a result, reminded that South Africans had also died. This time were even treated to the “third force” delicacy – nice. But back to operation sweep away.

In May 2008, South Africa witnessed its worst wave of xenophobic violence. An estimated 20 000 people were displaced, 62 died during clashes, 600 more injured, over 500 arrested but only 132 convicted for crimes committed during that time.

Screenshot from a short clip I took in Jeppestown, Johannesburg last month.
Screenshot from a short clip I took in Jeppestown, Johannesburg last month.

Often the names given to police or government operations have more bark than the implementations bite. Normally bad things happen, they say nothing for what seems an inordinate window between the occurrence and their reaction. And then (normally) things that make it look like things are happening happen – photos are taken, interviews conducted, live crossings on the scene – some people feel like something has happened because their voices are heard or a heavy police presence alters their daily reality somewhat. Then we all run towards the smoke of another fire in the distance and leave before a pile of ashes can form before us, at the current crisis.

Normally.

Sometimes the (re)action comes in the form of a temporary structure or a wrongful arrest – something, anything that will appease even the skeptics for a few beats.

This time they chose force, brute force and swift broom strokes to deal with the problem.

Every police man or government official I have spoken to has said that Operation Fiela is in no way linked to xenophobia, it’s just a standard joint operation to deal with criminal activity in certain areas (read hostels, informal settlements and other such places where they can stamp their boots with unadulterated impunity). Even though they’re collaborating with the same army that was deployed a few weeks ago and conducted humiliating night time raids.

“Large sections of police were unleashed on people, their doors kicked down and people were asked to show their papers. It was a military operation in the middle of the night,” Stephen Faulkner, Cosatu nine unions representative (May 12, 2015)

This week, Stephen Faulkner said it perfectly, to paraphrase: this entire operation needs  a rethink, we can’t go around unleashing the military on people and sweep them away (deport them) like rubbish.

Wayne Ncube, human rights lawyer, explained that deportation is a lengthy process with many steps, which is why they are concerned with the high number of arrests and possible deportations that have already happened. This week they are working towards consulting with about 400 of the latest victims of such a raid which took place at the Central Methodist Church last Friday.

I have not spoken to a single person who isn’t in government who has stood behind the operation. The raids never made sense to begin with, nor do the arrests. It would be easier to believe that these are “standard joint operations” if they were in actual fact standard. If we knew about weekly or monthly raids to seize illegal firearms, bust prostitution rings and arrest undocumented people it would have been easier.

But the timing – first the limp condemnations a week after the first attacks, then the army deployment and raids two weeks after that – the boasting and plenty photo opps say otherwise.

PS

REVIEW: Marikana movie Filmmaker Rehad Desai tells the story of the Marikana tragedy in a real time film

In the same way that Shaka bearing his spears was not on an equal footing with the British colonialists and their rifles, the Marikana miners with their machetes and knobkerries could not have been a true threat to the police.

They were met with nyalas, revolvers, stun grenades and hundreds of police officers. A line was crossed on August 16 2012. That line was the blurry line between self-defence and murder. The Wits Club on West Campus was transformed into a movie theatre on Monday night for a screening of a rough-cut of Rehad Desai’s film, which has the working title of Countdown to Marikana Massacre.

The ”roughness” of the version shown was evident but the story being told was so compelling that there were no grunts and groans when those parts came or technical glitches interrupted viewing. Desai’s version of events shows new evidence that seems damning. The police had footage of the area they now refer to as “scene two”. At this smaller koppie, miners were shot down after the initial shooting.

The police footage was one of the most horrifying yet gripping scenes of the film. It showed just how power had crossed a line and put its rubber boot on the throats or necks of ordinary miners. “Scene two” shows miners’ bodies at the bottom of the koppie. From the way their bodies fell it looks like police officers went after miners who were hiding. Police in the footage are heard congratulating one another for using “nice skills” where their shooting was concerned.

That scene is the climax to the message Desai had been trying to convey throughout the entire showing. He was saying something about the police and their collusion with Lonmin and perhaps even politicians. He pointed out that this kind of collusion was to blame and showed us what a force it was. This sentiment was further reinforced when new footage was shown of how the shooting on August 16 started. Miners no longer look as if they are charging at the police like in most of the footage circulated in the media, but are rather walking slowly towards the Wonderkop informal settlement.

Suddenly, a shot comes from behind one of the police vans, followed by a return shot by one miner armed with a gun and then the story we have seen before plays out.  The film is much like eNCA’s Through the Lens and Seven Days of Night two-part documentary in the way the story unfolds but different because it is clear that one side has been chosen and is favoured by Desai and the commentators he chose to interview.

Journalists are taught to have balance in whatever story we tell and, as we know, there is no such thing as objectivity. As a filmmaker, Desai has chosen the side he believes and backs up his evidence. More evidence has surfaced indicating that on the day of the massacre a call was made to a mortuary ordering four vans, each with the capacity to carry eight bodies. Four-thousand rounds of ammunition were also ordered by our police force.

Even if we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of Lonmin, the government or the police, it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that self-defence was the reason for 34 miners dying.