Road to 2019

As more parties embrace a tough line on immigration, xenophobia becomes a mainstream political tool

By Stephen Grootes 1 October 2018

Archive photo: Refugees wait to be relocated by the police to a temporary shelter after camping for five days by a major road in Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg, July 28, 2008. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SOUTH AFRICA)

In a country like South Africa, facing the problems that we do, there are issues that politicians should mention, discuss and handle with extreme care. The issue of non-South Africans, who are often referred to as “foreign nationals” or “illegal immigrants” is certainly one of them.

It appears that an increasing number of politicians now feel justified in throwing immigration as red meat to their base for their own, narrow and very personal advantage. There is now some evidence that they are playing with fire and that, should they continue, it might be impossible to control the unleashed monster.

It is surely the case that there is significant agreement with xenophobic ideas in South Africa. Talk radio stations regularly have to deal with people phoning in to complain about “foreigners”, about how “they” are taking “our” places in hospitals and schools.

From time to time there are warnings from organisations, often from KwaZulu-Natal, telling people who are not South African and who own shops to close them down for periods of time. In some cases there is a periodic aspect to it: the immigrants will often camp outside the local police station, eventually the tensions will subside and they will go back to their businesses as before.

There is also much blame to go around for how this situation was created. While hard numbers can be difficult to come by, (Africheck has provided an excellent explanation) the perception created is that “we” are being “overwhelmed” by foreign nationals. This is obviously not the case, and the actual numbers, such as they are available, are much lower than the scare stories would suggest.

The main causes of this massive wave of immigration are relatively simple: anyone who could leave Zimbabwe and wanted their children to grow up in a better and richer space could hardly be blamed for trying to do that. Our Home Affairs department has so far refused to comply with court orders to reopen refugee processing centres. And the ones which are open appear to be rife with corruption.

Over time, people come here from other countries to start a new life. Eventually their identities change, and it can be hard to know what they actually are. And in the meantime their legal status does not change, which means they are always vulnerable to deportation and the corruption that comes with that threat.

At the same time, many South Africans feel that their resources and jobs are being “taken” by immigrants. This is the same dynamic that happens around the world, in Britain, Europe, the US, almost everywhere (except perhaps Canada). In a modern world where perceptions can be more politically important than facts, politicians will always attempt to use the issue to their own advantage.

In fact, it appears to be happening now.

Ten days ago the DA said that it would make immigration one of the key issues of its manifesto. It said this was because our borders needed to be better controlled. Then, on Tuesday last week, the DA’s Gauteng premier candidate, and mayor of Tshwane, Solly Msimanga, joined the fray.

Quoting from what he said was an investigation by the Gauteng Provincial Government and the National Council of Provinces, he claimed that the province’s schools and hospitals were buckling under the strain and that each patient discharged from the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital alone cost R4,500 a day, which, he said, was never paid.

Startlingly, missing from the statement are actual hard numbers. Surely, if there is proof of this, the key figure here is the actual percentage of foreign patients treated at the hospital as a percentage of the total figure. This information should not be that difficult to come by. Msimanga’s other point, that the hospital has huge unpaid debt is, of course, true. But it is also true that Gauteng is owed millions of rand by other provinces, for treating “their” patients. Msimanga may be guilty of providing generalised statements instead of hard numbers.

The DA is not alone in this. The EFF has form here too. Its deputy president, Floyd Shivambu, was accused of xenophobia for asking Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba about whether he was a “Zimbabwean” in Parliament.

Of course, considering it can appear that the EFF is trying to create as much division as possible for its own purposes, it would make sense for that party to engage, from time to time, in a little xenophobia (Julius Malema has recently made inflammatory comments about “Boers”, “Jews” and, of course, Indian South Africans.

This issue has the potential to put the ANC in a difficult position. The history of the party, its role in ensuring “non-racialism” is the central dynamic of South Africa, should indicate that it would never turn against foreign nationals. The problem is that some of its leaders may feel that it is squeezed by these developments, and that it has no choice. The Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkongi has said that South Africa should not “surrender” the country to foreign nationals.

This, of course, is a race to the bottom. That all political parties, because of the prevailing lowest common denominator in the country when it comes to xenophobia, sound decidedly hostile to the immigrants is a worrying development. It does appear that in some quarters of the population, sounding xenophobic is a vote-getting tactic. That will always turn into an unprincipled competition as to who can take the hardest line on this issue.

It is a dynamic that has been seen before many times around the world, from the US, through Europe, to Sweden. This can lead to a legitimisation of violence against “foreign nationals”, or people who are believed to be so. Considering that it was just 10 years ago that at least 58 people were killed simply because of the place where they were born, the danger is very much still in the air.

What then, can be done to stop the politics of xenophobia from gaining momentum?

The Independent Electoral Commission has a code of conduct that it demands political parties stick to during campaigning season. It may be important for the IEC to consider adding to the code that comments deemed to be xenophobic are not allowed. However, some parties may feel that it too big a limitation on their right to campaign on the issue. The IEC could also try to ask political parties to voluntarily agree not to use the fear of foreign nationals in their campaigning. But that could also just invite dog-whistling and sub-tweeting.

It could also be that one of the political parties, and perhaps the ANC, simply uses any xenophobic comment by another party to condemn it. It can suggest that any xenophobic comment by the DA is proof that it is not really a party of the Constitution, and that any comment by the EFF is proof that it is inherently racist. In other words, to quote Michelle Obama, “when they go low, we go high”. But that may be too much to hope for, considering the ANC itself may feel vulnerable on this issue.

In the longer term, of course, what is really needed is some sort of solution for those who are deemed “illegal immigrants”. While there will be those who believe they should simply leave the country, they are unlikely to do so, particularly if their children are now in schools here. Rather, it would be better to roll with the dynamic that now appears unstoppable.

This would involve giving legal recognition to the situation on the ground. Which is surely easier than changing the situation on the ground. Again, while anecdotes abound, it is hard to know which skills foreign nationals have. But if their skills can be put to work unlocking our economy, it is surely the case that it would be churlish to refuse to use them.

There is, of course, another reason why this should happen, despite what our present-day politicians say. It is because, just as racism is impossible to explain to a child now, so, one day, will it be impossible to explain why someone should be treated differently just because of the geographical co-ordinates they were born in. DM

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