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Anti-Migrant Rhetoric Mirrors South Africa’s Shameful Track Record

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By Mavuso Msimang


OVER the past fortnight, South Africans have been fixated on an extravagant distraction occasioned by Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s article that vilified members of the judiciary, trivialised the country’s Constitution and launched a cowardly attack on her fellow leaders in the African National Congress (ANC) and Cabinet.

When President Ramaphosa elected, after a meeting with Honourable Sisulu, to use the agency of his office to release a statement that purportedly conveyed her retraction of the offending aspects of her article, the fiasco was prolonged.

An unrepentant Sisulu wasted no time in firmly rebuffing the president and in that act, let the universe know that she maintained her position that senior African judges are “house Negroes” and lickspittles who pass their court judgments for the benefit of foreign masters.

 

As the public continued in thrall of Sisulu’s sideshow, a surge of militant xenophobia was playing itself out across the land, with Gauteng its epicentre. Marches were staged against mostly African migrants living in South Africa.

 

In the glare of media publicity, one Nhlanhla Lux of Operation Dudula and his followers removed foreign traders from the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital taxi rank in Soweto.

Pamphlets were distributed calling for a day of action against foreigners on 22 January 2022, and young people were called upon to “print their CVs or copy of their IDs and visit restaurants to peacefully sing and demonstrate that all low-skill jobs belong to South Africans.”

Anti-migrant videos went viral on social media platforms, one horrible video in particular, showing a ruthless young man, callously evicting a petrified old woman from her shack.

Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie visited the Johannesburg City Council building where he was quoted as having said “the City of Johannesburg is full of foreigners working there whilst we have unemployed graduates sitting at home.”

He said much more, such as communicating that he had instructed some of his councillors to deal with the matter of African immigrants. “The Chief Whip has a Zimbabwean office manager,” he observed laconically.

Banners aplenty called for the removal of foreign Africans living in South Africa. “One and all” were invited to join Operation Sepelang to reclaim the country from “illegal foreigners”.  One group declared 2022 “the year of the campaign against migrants working in South Africa and the businesses that employ them”.

Against this sound and fury, there was deathly silence — a squeaky pip at best — from the government and the African National Congress (ANC).

Like Nero, they fiddled while Jozi was burning. Once upon a time, there was a National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance that was launched by the government in 2019 in the aftermath of the Johannesburg riots that resulted in at least seven deaths.

A dedicated portal was to be set up for “non-South African nationals” to report on xenophobic incidents. It would cover provinces and rope in community policing structures as well.

This seems to have come to naught.

Let’s place the subject of refugees and asylum seekers in context. South Africa is a signatory to both the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems In Africa.

As such, our country has an obligation to respect and uphold the letter and spirit of these conventions which, inter alia, contain certain rights provisions, such as protecting refugees and asylum seekers against unlawful expulsion or detention; the right to employment and education; access to the courts; and freedom of movement.  

Unscrupulous politicians and civic leaders — perhaps they are ignorant? — choose to put the country’s unconscionable levels of unemployment (32%) squarely on the shoulders of migrants, especially those who happen to be in the lower-skills grades.

Fact: economic growth has been struggling for more than a decade now, for reasons within and outside our control. The 2008 financial crisis in the US started it all, followed by low commodity prices, which necessitated budget cuts.

But certain important factors must be laid at the door of our malaise. It is the lack of structural transformation that has yielded our unconscionable levels of poverty.

More than 50% of the population lives below the official poverty line. That is a staggering 30.4 million people as of September 2021!

Some 15 million people live in conditions of extreme poverty, unable to buy enough food for sustenance. Load shedding is largely a consequence of bad government strategies and misgovernance at Eskom in times gone by. Load shedding significantly and stubbornly continues to disrupt production.

State Capture saw the public and private sectors collaborate in corruption, in the process annihilating the productive capacity of state-owned enterprises.

Lastly, the 2021 July riots in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng, apart from killing in excess of 300 people, extensively damaged the country’s key communication and logistics infrastructure. Thousands of jobs, especially in the low skills range, were lost in the wake of the looting spree that led to malls and other enterprises closing down.

How so very noteworthy it would have been had the people who are now mobilising the community to expel migrants, demanded urgent steps to prosecute the murderers of innocent people and saboteurs of the economy!

Or, if they had decided to stage demonstrations against State Capture perpetrators who were much more visible in their high offices and gleaming limousines. Or, if they had decided to organise marches in support of whistleblowers. Fortunately, it’s not too late to do this.

EFF leader Julius Malema recognising that asylum seekers are entitled to untrammelled access to job opportunities would not harm his putative pan-African agenda.

Let’s understand this: undocumented migrants have no legal standing in the country. They exist in such abundance because of the oft-cited porousness of our physical borders.

But no, their existence is abetted by rampant corruption in the security cluster institutions: Home Affairs, whose immigration officials facilitated the exit of Bushiri; SARS customs officials; police who collude with drug dealers and collect bribes from motorists; others who are responsible for allocating houses.

The collusive criminal activities of this lot must not be used to victimise bona fide migrants.

Sadly, South Africa has a dismal, and shameful, track record in managing migrant affairs. We lack empathy for people who are themselves by and large victims of intolerant, corrupt and incompetent regimes in their own countries.

Many compatriots do not appreciate how much South Africa owes its freedom to amazing acts of international solidarity and sacrifices.

Collectively, there exist hundreds of graves in the cemeteries of Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola of citizens who died because they and their governments dared to make common cause with the people of South Africa during their darkest hour.

The apartheid war machine punished them by destroying their houses, roads, bridges and other development infrastructure, punishment for accommodating and facilitating the transit of guerrillas bound for South Africa to do battle.

The people of Khutsong in Gauteng, shack settlements working with Abahlali baseMjondolo in KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and others I may not be aware of, continue to redeem us through their resolute stand against xenophobia.

They deserve our gratitude.

Mavuso Msimang is a leader of change in South Africa with varied experience in transforming institutions. He has been a member of the WWF South Africa Board since February 2011 and chairs the Social Ethics and Transformation Committee.