The deployment of the army to areas hit by xenophobic attacks was long overdue, opposition parties said on Wednesday after President Thabo Mbeki’s nod to South African National Defence Force (SANDF) “involvement”.
South African police say 42 people have been killed in violence in Johannesburg that has raged for more than a week and 16 000 have been displaced.
The deployment of the army was an acknowledgement by Mbeki that there was “a state of emergency” in South Africa, said Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder.
It was also a reflection on the police’s inability to contain the situation.
The stubbornness of Mbeki and the government in acknowledging the xenophobia problem over the years had resulted in the situation “getting so out of control” that the SANDF had to be called in, he said.
“The defence force should actually have been deployed a long time ago as it would have prevented an escalation of the conflicts and would have saved many lives,” said Mulder.
Mbeki agreed to a police request for army assistance in quelling the violence on Wednesday.
“[Mbeki] has approved a request from the South African Police Service [SAPS] for the involvement of the SANDF in stopping ongoing attacks on foreign nationals in Gauteng province,” his office said in a statement.
“It is a pity that this decision was not taken earlier,” said the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) leader in the Gauteng legislature, Jack Bloom.
Echoing Mulder, he said: “Many lives could have been saved if the army had been brought in last week when the DA first called for it.”
Bloom said army resources such as field kitchens, tents, mobile toilets, beds and blankets should also be used to ease the lot of the victims sheltering in police stations, churches and community halls.
The police and army were in talks about the deployment on Wednesday night.
Director Sally De Beer, spokesperson in the office of the police national commissioner, said the public should not expect to see troops “generally deployed” with the police. “You won’t see troops taking over the police role,” she said.
When there were specific operations where the police needed more manpower, “then we will request their assistance”.
Despite the involvement of the SANDF, the police would “still be in charge” of the operation, De Beer said.
Defence Ministry spokesperson Sam Mkhwanazi said there would be a military presence in the strife-hit areas “as soon as all that needs to be done is complete”.
More than 3 000 Mozambicans have fled the anti-immigrant violence in South Africa and returned home, Mozambican state media reported on Wednesday.
The state radio and television services said more than 3 000 Mozambicans had voluntarily returned from South Africa after becoming targets in the wave of violence directed at foreigners in slum areas around Johannesburg.
Mozambican officials were not immediately available for comment.
Meanwhile, South Africa is heading for a bleak future if it is unable to deal with xenophobia, Chief Justice Pius Langa said on Wednesday.
“They are acts which threaten to negate the gains we’ve made as a nation, as a country in defeating apartheid rule. It is abundantly clear that if we as South Africans fail to take immediate and effective action [against] these attacks we are heading for a bleak future indeed.
“We live in a global village. Our countries are interdependent and international cooperation is the norm.”
Langa was delivering the Siyabulela Mlombile memorial lecture at the University of South Africa in Pretoria.
Though South Africa faced an array of challenges following apartheid, it should not go back to acts and practices that caused division.
“Our choice must always be to go forward,” he said.
Langa said it was also essential for South Africa to take steps to lower the “unacceptably” high levels of crime. It was the responsibility of communities to help reintegrate offenders into society.
On curbing crime the chief justice said it was important that young people were taught to have respect for the law. — Sapa, AFP