South Africa faces human rights backlash over crime crackdown

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At midnight, the streets of Hillbrow, formerly the toughest and most animated area of Johannesburg, are deserted. No car passes through here without being stopped at a police roadblock, checked and sometimes searched.

At midnight, the streets of Hillbrow, formerly the toughest and most animated area of Johannesburg, are deserted. No car passes through here without being stopped at a police roadblock, checked and sometimes searched.

"Operation Crackdown'' enters its fourth week today and already thousands have been arrested, immigrants deported from South Africa and valuable loot and arms seized.

Yet in the country with the world's worst murder and rape statistics, critics of the most visible effort yet to end crime say the clampdown is a short-sighted publicity stunt that panders to South African xenophobia by targeting immigrants.

The Human Rights Commission is particularly concerned that foreigners are asked to strip semi-naked in the streets of Johannesburg to allow police officers to see whether their vaccination marks look South African.

Jonny Steinberg, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation says the South African government is trying the American "zero tolerance'' approach, on the cheap.

"A crack team of shock troops does not solve a crime problem. The fact that saturation (policing) must be performed by an imported squad shows we do not have the capacity to sustain it. The success of saturation policing rides on the guarantee that saturation is a permanent, day-to-day feature,'' he said.

The clampdown's most visible impact has been on Lindela transit centre near Johannesburg which normally houses 2,000 deportees but whose number of inmates has reportedly soared to 8,000. Instead of one deportation train leaving Park Station each week for Mozambique with 2,500 people aboard, the departures are happening every few days.

Jody Kollapen, a human rights commissioner, said: "We are unhappy about the search and seizure procedures used against the immigrants and asylum seekers.''

But the operation is popular with most South Africans who believe foreigners take their jobs and are responsible for the country's high crime rate. Consequently, the government is playing up the successes of the clampdown.

Last Friday at 3am journalists were invited to watch "operation crackdown'' at Westbury, a Johannesburg suburb, where 1,800 officers had been deployed. The operation, said the national police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, was resulting in nearly 2,000 arrests every three days and it would continue for a year.

Even though "Crackdown'' is supposed to target crime in general, the high number of immigrants arrested - 8,000 at the last count - has the effect of sending a message which links them to criminality. The police say South Africa has eight million "illegal foreigners'' - out of a population of 42 million - and that about 140,000 of them are repatriated each year. South Africa is a popular destination for African migrants who see it as a country of opportunity.

Steve Tshwete, the safety and security minister, who has been widely praised for the success of the operation, said: "If you want to come to South Africa you must get proper documents. This is not a banana republic.''

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