Troops raid hostel known as trouble spot; 11 arrested, no weapons seized
Critic calls the raid "a massive PR exercise," calls on government to address root causes of violence
The convoy of armored personnel carriers rolled through the empty city streets. The soldiers were heading back to their barracks after a late-night deployment in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
The target: Jeppestown hostel, where just days before armed residents, mostly Zulus, torched cars and looted foreign-owned shops, promising to drive out their immigrant neighbors.
“We’ve identified a number of hot spots where we’ll be running numerous policing operations supported by the South African defense forces,” National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega told CNN as operations at the hostel began Tuesday night.
Earlier in the day, Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula announced the plan to deploy an undisclosed number of troops to areas where police are spread too thin while trying to curb deadly attacks against immigrants.
“This intervention is not an indictment on the police. … We are coming in because they need that support,” she said after visiting Johannesburg’s Alexandra Township, where the brutal killing of Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole was captured by photographer James Oatway. His images were plastered across every front page, prompting President Jacob Zuma to say, “It makes us look bad.”
“Terrible picture. People who live in rough townships have never seen such a scene,” he said at a news conference. “And I was sitting and I was saying to myself, what are we telling the world about ourselves?”
Pikkie Greeff, who runs South Africa’s largest military trade union, says those photos contributed to the government’s decision to deploy troops.
“No doubt that caused some diplomatic stir between the African countries who are very concerned about their citizens at this stage.” Greeff told CNN.
Hostels have always been traditional no-go zones for police. But with a massive show of force – armed soldiers establishing a perimeter outside and elite police units searching inside – the raid went off without incident. Like the rest of Johannesburg, on this night Jeppestown was quiet.
Eleven suspects were arrested, charged with possession of stolen goods. No weapons were seized. And with the national police commissioner on standby for interviews, it was clear the media’s presence was part of the plan.
“What government was probably trying to do was engage on a massive PR exercise,” said Greeff. “One doesn’t need the defense force to do these kinds of raids. If there are certain hot spots which have a reputation for criminal conduct, then the question is, why wait until there is a diplomatic embarrassment until taking the measure of simply searching buildings and effecting arrests?”
Greeff and others say more needs to be done to address the underlying causes of xenophobic violence. “Our government is unfortunately reactive. There is no proactive, long term or visible plan for people in townships and the poor to uplift their standards of life,” he said.
“They live in difficult circumstances,” Phiyega said when asked if the night’s show of force would lead to more animosity from hostel residents. “But at least if there could be visibility of police in ensuring that they too deserve to be safe and secure and our services to them critical.”