By Anton Harber
A South African woman living in a building called Fatties Mansions in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, with her Burundian boyfriend and three-month-old daughter was woken one night in May by the police and soldiers of Operation Fiela kicking down their front door.
Fiela means “to sweep away, to clean up, to remove dirt” in the Sotho language. This was a joint operation launched by the police, municipal police and the military in response to a wave of xenophobic violence which had taken seven lives. It should be seen, said Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress, as “an attempt to rid the country of illegal and undocumented immigrants”. In other words, it was aimed at the victims rather than the perpetrators of the violence that had gripped the city a week earlier.
Documents filed in court over the next few weeks said, “They asked for the boyfriend’s papers and he was slapped when he showed his passport. She tried to show them her South African identification but they refused to look at it, she says. They were sent downstairs with the baby, but with no blankets, nappies or food, and taken to the police station where she says people had to sit on the floor without food or access to toilets. Eventually, she managed to show an officer her ID book and was released around 12.30am.”
Little of this was reported in the mainstream media, and only cursorily covered was the fact that lawyers had to return to court twice to get access to those detained in Operation Fiela. In its first few days, the security forces took journalists with them to make a public show of their clenched-fist response to the violence. Pictures that emerged showed the humiliation and degradation of scores of people – the documented and the undocumented, local and foreign.
Front-page images of many being made to lie down half-naked in the corridors of their buildings as police searched their belongings were reminiscent of security force action at the height of apartheid. Media response, though, was muted, in line with public sentiment, which is strongly anti-crime and anti-immigrant.
This article is taken from the Ethical Journalism Network's report 'Moving Stories - International Review of How Media Cover Migration'
About the author
Anton Harber is the Caxton Professor of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He was founder-editor of the anti-apartheid newspaper the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian). He is chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute, board member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, and writes a column in Business Day. He is the author of Diepsloot (Jonathan Ball, 2011).
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