Fourteen years after a series of violent xenophobic attacks that left 62 people dead and many others injured and displaced, the specter of xenophobic violence once again looms over South Africa.
A few weeks ago, a group of locals formed a group called #OperationDudula which is carrying out so-called clean-up operations in Soweto and other parts of Johannesburg. The group claims to rid the townships of undocumented immigrants, whom it claims are responsible for crime and the “stealing” of jobs from South Africans.
That of the group modus operandi consists of going in large numbers to the houses and shops of informal commerce occupied by foreign nationals and evicting them by force. Members of #OperationDudula say the stalls are being hijacked by foreign nationals, who are also accused of breaking city by-laws.
The argument that illegal immigrants are hijacking stalls in Soweto borrows from the widespread narrative that the decay of downtown Johannesburg is the result of outsiders hijacking buildings. This narrative has been cemented by various politicians, including the city’s former mayor, Herman Mashaba.
As a starting point, I must say that it is indeed true that there are buildings in downtown Johannesburg and in South African cities that are illegally occupied. Some of these occupants are undocumented immigrants.
The fall of apartheid in 1994 saw multitudes of black Africans settle in once off-limits towns, particularly Johannesburg. This movement saw white residents and a majority of businesses relocate and relocate their offices to the northern suburbs. This disinvestment from the city, coupled with ineffective management of the urban environment, has led to its decline. Property values plummeted and buildings were left derelict.
With rising levels of unemployment and poverty, as well as the housing crisis that defines urban South Africa, Johannesburg and other cities have experienced the phenomenon of slum development and hijacked buildings.
But the issue of hijacked buildings is far more complex than many realize. For one thing, hijacked buildings are not simply the result of criminality on the part of the occupants. On the contrary, they are made necessary by the absence of social housing for the poor in the city centre. Neither the Gauteng Provincial Government nor the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality have implemented spatial development strategies aimed at creating sustainable human settlements that prioritize the inner city poor.
Instead, both levels of government actively facilitated gentrification and the development of gated neighborhoods. This is their idea of “urban rejuvenation”. The poor, who cannot afford the rent for these spaces and who cannot settle further outside the city due to centralized economic opportunities and high transportation costs, have been pushed to the margins.
Without income, the inner city poor engage in informal rental contracts that are often misinterpreted as embezzlement.
In some cases, buildings are described as embezzled when occupants refuse to pay rent for legitimate reasons which include, but are not limited to, lack of maintenance by landlords.
During my masters research on gentrification in downtown Johannesburg, I discovered that it is not uncommon for landlords to ignore their contractual obligations to tenants while demanding payment of rent. These tenants, many of whom are very poor and some of whom are undocumented immigrants, have very little recourse, due to the complexity of navigating the legal system.
We must never pretend that the justice system is not intimidating and complex, especially for those most in need, and certainly for undocumented immigrants whose precarious status makes it difficult for law enforcement to approach. Landlords use this to their advantage, evicting people who occupy buildings illegally, when in reality they have been paying rent for many years.
Importantly, while some of these tenants are undocumented migrants, the majority are actually South Africans, many of whom have migrated from rural areas and even townships in Gauteng.
But an even bigger problem is that government officials, not undocumented immigrants, are at the center of the hijacked buildings in South Africa. There is compelling evidence that many state-owned properties and plots of land have been hijacked by a syndicate working with government officials. This was confirmed in 2019 by Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille, who also added that the government is the guardian of more than 30,000 land and more than 80,000 buildings whose status and value it does not know.
A senior public works official was quoted as saying“…corrupt officials, who access the insecure registry, work with criminals to identify neglected, forgotten or vacant properties. They transfer them to third parties and then sell or rent them out, earning millions of rands. We’re not talking just one property, but hundreds. Homes, apartments, office buildings and land are being hijacked and stolen without the knowledge of the government.
Groups like #OperationDudula would have us believe that undocumented immigrants are hijacking shops and buildings, but the reality is that immigrants are being used as scapegoats for many government failures. The lack of job creation, the unresolved issue of landlessness, the glacial pace of transformation of the land-use planning regime which still recalls the spatiality of apartheid and the inability to provide social housing in downtown are the source of the problem.
But it is more convenient to put the blame on the undocumented and to agitate the deprived young people of the townships to deport them. It is more convenient to pretend that immigrants are the problem because the other explanation, that we have an indifferent and ineffective government, shatters our illusion of a liberal democracy that we so desperately want to save. DM
Malaika Mahlatsi, commonly known as Malaika Wa Azania, is the bestselling author of Memoirs of a Freeborn: Reflections on the Rainbow Nationand the recently published Death Rows: The Struggle to Exist in Historically White Institutions. She is a geographer/planner and researcher at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. When she’s not writing, she listens to Bruce Springsteen with a cup of rooibos tea.