Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba grabbed headlines again this week when he staged his first citizen’s arrest – of a street trader for pushing a trolley full of cow heads in the Johannesburg CBD.
Immediately after Mashaba proudly tweeted that he stopped an illegal act “in our city”, he faced criticism for targeting a street trader. His response to one of the people calling him out was even more crass. He tweeted: “We are going to sit back and allow people like you to bring us Ebolas in the name of small business. Health of our people first. Our health facilities are already stretched to the limit [sic].” It was not only devoid of fact, but also grossly xenophobic.
Mashaba has been no stranger to making xenophobic statements, and was previously forced to apologise for blaming crime in the city on “illegal immigrants”. He issued an apology on Wednesday, stating that he was not above making mistakes, and when he did, he would “humble” himself and “apologise unreservedly to our residents”. “With the benefit of hindsight, I can appreciate how my comments offended people with its insensitivity,” he said. He also apologised to residents of the city for creating concern about a potential ebola outbreak and “for what appeared to be insensitivity towards the plight of informal traders in our City”.
“It was never my intention for the comments to be construed as an attack on any person or group – informal traders or our foreign residents,” Mashaba said in a statement. He defiantly concluded: “For my dedication to safeguarding the health of our residents and the rule of law in our City, I can never apologise because this was the change demanded by our residents in 2016.”
Johannesburg Metro Police Department spokesperson chief superintendent Wayne Minnaar said the man was an “undocumented foreign national”, and was charged for being undocumented and transporting cow heads in an unhygienic manner. Gauteng police spokesperson captain Mavela Masondo said the man was being detained at the Hillbrow police station and that the cow heads were impounded.
Ottilia Maunganidze, head of special projects at the Institute for Security Studies, was critical about Mashaba’s tweets and comments. “For a mayor of the city, and a mayor who must govern the city not just for his constituency but for everyone … to make those statements is irresponsible … but it is also quite reckless and dangerous because of the possible impact,” she said.
“We know that in campaigning for office, this was part of his messaging … What he has been articulating, even though he might articulate it in a more crass way, is DA policy … which means he won’t be held to account in his own political party … So if they were to apologise, it would be disingenuous to do so. But the City of Johannesburg must apologise, because he doesn’t just serve his constituents, he serves the full city,” Maunganidze said.
The DA’s provincial leader John Moodey said Mashaba had already apologised. He didn’t answer questions about whether the party would hold Mashaba accountable. “The mayor has removed the tweet. He has apologised. I support his apology. His is a real concern regarding the adherence to much needed health regulations,” Moodey said.
The DA has made immigration one of its main concerns ahead of the 2019 elections, and has gone as far as saying that it wants to reinforce border fences, increase military patrols along the border, and enforce stricter controls on migration.
Maunganidze said society required a concerted effort to counter the repeated xenophobic statements made by leaders such as Mashaba. “We’ve seen individual statements and criticism, but we haven’t seen a concerted effort to say this is unacceptable coming from the other political parties. The reason, if I am quite frank, is that some of them agree with his views, but they might not agree with how he says it.”
Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda, newly elected chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum, called on Mashaba and the DA to act more responsibly and respect the rights of all people in the City. “When Mashaba speaks so callously and says that small businesses are going to bring in ebola, particularly because the person that was pushing the trolley with cow heads was being pushed by an undocumented person, I think he is being such an irresponsible leader,” he said. “He’s practically showing that he’s trying to buy people’s hearts and votes. Sibanda referred to Mashaba’s antics as “cheap politicking”.
Professor Loren Landau, research professor at the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, condemned Mashaba’s actions and his and the DA’s campaigning around immigration. “When Mashaba took office, many were concerned by his comments, which came across as anti-poor and anti-foreigner,” he said.
“I hoped these were merely a sign of his political inexperience. Alas, it appears that Mashaba – and the party he represents – is relying on a counter-immigration, anti-immigrant platform to win votes. This is a desperate and lazy measure from a party that has no substantive alternatives they can sell to the South African people,” Landau said.
Sharon Ekambaram, manager for the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, said Mashaba’s comments were reckless. She dismissed his apology. “This tweet is consistent with the DA policies that stink of racism and are xenophobic when it comes to migrants in South Africa. Mashaba is a dishonest politician,” she said.
“This mayor has, since he came into power, been attacking predominantly black foreign nationals from the rest of Africa who come to South Africa. His statements are reckless in that they fuel xenophobic violence in our country. Mashaba cannot substantiate any of the statements he makes about migrants.”