South African Immigration Policy: It’s Time For A Change

Xenophobia has long been a dark sub-chapter of the post-apartheid South African story. This discrimination, directed by Black South African nationals towards Black African immigrants, has been a constant struggle in the “New” South Africa. Indeed, it was the xenophobic riots of 2008, 2015, and 2019 that constituted the most powerful expression of public violence witnessed in the post-apartheid period.

These outbursts tended to erupt within South Africa’s townships. Within these peripheral spaces, groups of Black South Africans unleashed lethal torrents of rage onto Black African non-nationals or those perceived as such. In 2008, the violence claimed 62 lives and displaced up to 100,000 people. The disturbing image of Ernesto Nhamuave, a 35-year-old Mozambican, being burnt alive in Ramaphosa Township on the East Rand was one that captured the international gaze.

What garners less coverage, though, is how for far too long South African immigration policy has tended to buttress and stoke these xenophobic flames. In the first half of 2020, little has changed. In one of the latest developments, the National Assembly has passed the Border Management Authority Bill, taking the bill one step closer to completion. If this piece of legislation is completed, it will allow the South African government to militarise its borders to an extent not previously seen in the post-apartheid era. The bill draws on a nagging theme within South African migration policy, that of a large-scale alien invasion, as it associates the large numbers of illegal immigrants with a national “crisis.”

Such rhetoric within government goes back as early as 2004, when the notorious Minister for Home Affairs Mangosothu Buthulezi regularly banged a nativist drum through his descriptions of “floods” of “illegal aliens” swarming the South African nation. And, much like Buthulezi’s policies, the Border Management Authority Bill appears to prioritize the need for a fixed spatial identity over a sense of moral duty towards the many refugees and asylum seekers that find themselves attempting to cross the South African border. This is because the bill leaves no mention of the now universally accepted principle of non-refoulment, whereby a country must not refuse entry to peoples who may face harm or persecution if they are made to travel back to the country from which they fled. To combat the so-called “invaders,” the bill calls for thousands of border guards which would require a starter cost of R3.8 billion followed by later annual costs of up to R10 billion. This is a staggering diversion of resources to combat the all too often exaggerated threat of “illicit goods, drugs… and stolen vehicles.”

The bill is a further blow for refugees already inside South Africa, who have already suffered great anguish after the draconian Refugees Amendment Act was passed at the end of last year. This law tightly restricts the work refugees can do and the political activities they can participate in relating to their home country. In pursuing these policies, the South African government marginalizes refugees living inside the country. Their semi-citizen status serves simply to reinforce an incipient feeling across the national consciousness that these non-nationals “don’t belong.” Such is the sense of antipathy in the current climate that in October last year one large group of refugees -originating from countries across the continent – staged a sit-in protest outside the offices of the UN’s refugee agency where they called to be resettled away from South Africa.

For a country that has often emphasized the need for continental renewal, solidarity, and even an “African Renaissance,” these immigration policies seem to fly in the face of South Africa’s calls to action. The outbreak of COVID-19 has only revealed deep-rooted prejudices, as Public works Minister Patricia de Lille earlier announced that she had invoked emergency procurement procedure to “build or erect” 40 kilometres of fence along South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe in an attempt to plug holes in the nation’s supposedly porous entry points. The Minister cited the need to “ensure that no undocumented or infected persons cross into the country” as justification for the decision, despite the fact that at the time of the announcement South Africa recorded 1,845 cases of coronavirus to Zimbabwe’s 11. Moreover, there is a broad consensus among health professionals that the disease has been spread across South Africa by people flying in from Europe.

Without a fundamental shift in South African immigration policy, there is every possibility that violent xenophobia will once more rear its ugly head. To move away from a political discourse of othering and a set of policies that link non-national Africans with crime and job-stealing, the South African government and its apparatuses must first take an introspective look. Too often, political responses to xenophobia have been structured by denial.

During the violence in Gauteng last year, Police Minister Bheki Cele claimed that xenophobia was being “used as an excuse” for base criminality, despite the fact that looters were sweeping through foreign-owned business shops. After 120 foreign nationals were killed in 2011, 140 in 2012, and 150 in 2013, then Minister for Home Affairs Naledi Pandor argued “I do not believe we, as a people, are xenophobic.” Pandor remains a cabinet Minister in Rampahosa’s government. In the months after the brutally violent xenophobic riots of 2008, then-President Thabo Mbeki declared the “dark days of May” as “naked criminal activity.” He went on to argue that “I heard it insistently that my people… have become xenophobic… I wondered what the accusers knew about my people which I did not know”. In attacking what he perceived as externally imposed narratives about his “people,” Mbeki also revealed how his own internalized national identity clouded his judgment of these tragic events.

South African politicians must therefore not simply accept xenophobia for the corrosive issue that it is. They must also travel back in time and create Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that impartially address the xenophobic violence which has plagued the nation for decades. These will serve to heal communities and acknowledge past atrocities. For it is only once the extent of xenophobia is accepted across political discourse that changes can begin to be implemented. Linked to this, the government must put an end to political points scoring off immigration statistics. Rather than demonizing African immigrants through often vastly exaggerated facts and statistics, the government must embrace them. It would surely also be of benefit for a more competitive political environment, were a new party able to challenge the ANC’s hegemony and subsequent delivery of immigration policies.

Ultimately, solutions must be found through more engagement, interaction, and compromise with vital regional bodies like the Southern African Development Community and the African Union. There is little denying that South Africa receives a comparatively high number of immigrants. However, through collaboration with member-states and a more transparent endorsement of the benefits of migration, South Africa might be able to muffle the nativist drum and reduce the sense of hostility faced by African immigrants who do enter the country. These are all, of course, medium to long-term solutions. Scrapping the Border Management Authority Bill tomorrow would be a good way to get things kicked off.


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