Business Day, 29 May 2008

PLEASE NOTE: Readers wishing to reproduce and reference this article
should contact the editors of the Business Day for permission

A 2006 study on xenophobia among police in Johannesburg paints a bleak picture. The study, which was conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and published in the SA Crime Quarterly, suggests that most respondents believe undocumented foreigners are “responsible” for crimes committed in the city. Ironically, foreigners who have been victims of recent xenophobic attacks have sought refuge at police stations, despite the fact that police are indicated as harassing them more than any other officials. As SA increasingly attracts foreigners, there is a need for a police service that is impartial and allows all people to feel safe. According to Themba Masuku, a senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, there is a “notable difference” among Johannesburg’s officers when it comes to policing foreigners and policing South Africans. This is because there is “a lot of resentment” towards foreigners, as many police believe that foreigners are behind unsolvable crimes because fingerprints cannot be traced. The vast majority of the respondents in the study believe that most illegal immigrants commit crime, which could make undocumented immigrants more vulnerable to police abuse. Immigrants are easy targets for police extortion often because of their lack of identity documents or their tenuous legal status. Arresting foreigners also help police reach their arrest targets. The study says there is no statistical evidence to support the overwhelming perception that undocumented immigrants are involved in crime. Police management is aware of the problem of xenophobia and it has been placed on the South African Police Service (SAPS) transformation agenda, according to the study. However, Masuku says that research suggests there has been a lack of change in the values and attitudes of a significant proportion of members. A minority of respondents — about 30% — indicated they had received some training on race and discrimination. Officers are often sent on courses considered “irrelevant” to police work to meet police management’s requirements regarding training. The study’s suggestions to improve the situation include paying attention to who needs training and its quality, and strengthening internal management systems so that managers can identify problematic behaviour quickly. It says although there are external oversight bodies that can probe police abuse, it might be necessary for a single body to take responsibility for xenophobia so that cases are investigated quickly. Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) spokesman Benzi ka-Soko agrees that xenophobia is a problem among some police members. Julia Hornberger, who is a researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, says the police are a reflection of our broader society. “The police are people, and they are as xenophobic as their communities,” she says. Unless the police have efficient in-house training tackling racism, xenophobia, the constitution and the bill of rights, they will continue to be part of the problem, and not the solution. The SAPS was sent questions to which it did not respond.