We have all seen them, on television or online streaming, the refugees fleeing the wreckage and destruction of their countries in the midst of genocide, warfare, civil insurrection and the like. There are those waves of migrants clambering onto any available transportation in order to leave a blasted economy that has shrivelled away to nothing in the midst of sectarian violence. In our 24/7, perpetual news cycle, we have almost – but not quite – become used to watching live, on-the-scene reporting of the thousands of Syrians, Afghans, North Africans, or Central Americans, fleeing across borders or stretches of dangerous open water, often, quite literally, to find any safe port in a man-made storm.
Once that human wave crashes on the shore, the local government then must respond in some way to the rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis. Almost immediately, emergency food, shelter and medical care resources must be begged for, then marshalled for the emergency, and often put into place in isolated, difficult-to-reach locations that require complex management efforts to sustain. Such rapidly evolving emergency efforts quickly demand well-integrated, well-managed international efforts that can tax the resources of even well-situated nations, let alone less well-endowed ones.
In our day, such demands on a host nation’s resources easily become the toxic plaything of ambitious politicians eager to score resources for their domestic political squabbles by exploiting the miseries of the migrant to, and the strain on, the receiving nation that can deeply roil or even unravel a domestic political and social equilibrium. We have seen this unhappy scene often enough in the past several years. From Greece, to Italy, to Britain, to America, and a growing litany of other nations as well, the presence of new waves of immigrants (or even just the rumoured waves of immigrants) has become a poisonous political issue, dividing people within nations deeply and angrily.
Here in South Africa, as a local result of one version of such earlier pressures over the years, demographers say there may be up to three million Zimbabweans resident in the country. They are here both as legally documented persons as well as those living more quietly in the shadows, without the right papers.
Still, most of these people are demonstrably working hard to support dependents in South Africa as well as in their home country, and almost all of them have been eager to gain legal status, whenever the door has been opened for this. In recent years, the South African government has actually taken steps to regularise the issuance of three-year permits to Zimbabweans, and hundreds of thousands have taken advantage of this opportunity.
Zimbabweans in South Africa can clean our homes, serve us in restaurants, park our cars, teach our children, do our accounting, nurse our sick, and manage large and small businesses. And, of course, inevitably, some do other, less auspicious things.
Now, of course, Zimbabwe has yet again become a big story for South Africa, and South Africans. A year ago it was all about that coup that was not a coup that finally removed President Robert Gabriel Mugabe, after 38 years of increasingly erratic, profligate, despotic, authoritarian rule, the destruction of much of the country’s economy, the devastation of the country’s commercial agricultural sector and the pauperisation of far too many of the country’s citizens. His successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, regardless of his past history in cahoots with his predecessor, was initially seen as a leader generally poised to lead a return to economic growth, the rule of law, and the reopening of civic spaces for the nation’s people.
But that was then. This is now. The economy remains mired in a maze of competing local quasi-currencies and they are increasingly depreciating against the very scarce US dollar, despite the fact that it is effectively the country’s actual currency. The president, meanwhile, is spending scarce foreign exchange to take a massive delegation to Russia, Belarus, and Davos to beg and borrow foreign assistance.
And now, most recently, while the president was en route to Russia, his government introduced a doubling-plus of the price of petrol – after other, previous price rises in 2018, reportedly making the price of petrol in Zimbabwe the highest in the world.
Not surprisingly, this led to protest strikes and calls for stayaway, stay-at-home actions. That, in turn, generated street protests, and those inevitably sent the police and military on the move to crack down, hard, on any protesters, and then the shutting down of all internet connections between Zimbabwe and the rest of the world to limit reports about what was occurring. Reports by phone speak of multiple deaths, many more wounded, mass arrests, fears of yet further arrests, and, increasingly, the use of strong-arm search-and-seizure raids. These are the usual techniques of an increasingly repressive government that feels itself under pressure from its unhappy citizenry.
Going forward, one of the possible outcomes is an increasingly sullen, angry populace, well aware that the government’s control now only really comes at the point of a bayonet, or the hard end of the truncheon. Another outcome, of course, is the further degradation of civil order, even more economic distress, and a population that looks for ways out of their travails. In either case or pretty much any of the other likely outcomes, the population may go on the move to somewhere – anywhere? – to gain some safety and stability for their lives.
But for Zimbabwe, a place without a coast and one that is otherwise largely surrounded either by other nation’s arid landscapes or countries whose economies are also hurting towards chaos, a population on the move means on the move southward to get out of harm’s way, to move beyond chaos, or even to respond to the very basic need to survive for the family.
(Historically, of course, economic opportunities once led thousands of Zimbabweans to come to South Africa, back when Zimbabwe was still Southern Rhodesia. The lure of those mines and factories proved irresistible, even if their political and social circumstances usually proved to be rather grim in the old South Africa.)
By now, with the prior experience of the many economic migrants from Zimbabwe already in the country, with the televised experience of all those immigrants reaching Germany, Greece, Italy and the Balkans already in view, as well as the political realities of America now in play in the face of a largely imaginary crisis of mass migration from Mexico, it would seem a certainty that South Africa would be fully at the ready to respond to a mass movement of people as – or if or when – things go sour to the north. Especially since even richer nations have found themselves overwhelmed, initially forced to rely on civil society, the generosity of private individuals, and then, later, international and regional humanitarian bodies as well.
By now, too, beyond such institutional preparation, in South Africa, there should be strong public utterances to reassure the local population – already nervous or angry about foreign migrants – that their government is ready to deal humanely with those who seek temporary refuge from harm’s way. Simultaneously, the government must be both privately and publicly making it very clear to the Zimbabwean authorities that their actions must be guided by efforts to make circumstances calmer, not by carrying out the kinds of things that drive people to flee for their safety, and to focus hard on relieving economic distress.
Instead of reassuring people that – just in case – real contingency measures across all relevant government departments such as health, home affairs, police, defence, and others, all guided by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, are already in place, what we hear basically is silence. Unnerving, distinctly unreassuring silence. Silence.
So far at least, the sole public statement from the South African government has been: “The South African Government has noted protest action in Zimbabwe and is monitoring the situation. Consultations are taking place between diplomats, we are confident that the measures being taken by the Zimbabwean Government will resolve the situation.”
This is the kind of wording couched in the grizzled, old language of total non-interference in the domestic affairs of another country, regardless of the mess. This effectively communicates the idea that South Africa expects that the Zimbabwean authorities will do everything needed to restore and keep order – and keep that potential for the launch of a vast frightened migratory foot traffic down to a bare minimum – whatever it takes. In stark response, by contrast, Human Rights Watch’s Southern African director, Dewa Mavhinga, said at the launch of that organisation’s yearly review of African human rights issues on 17 October the “Crisis in #Zimbabwe could engulf the region if not addressed. Yet #SADC and #AU have so far remained silent”.
But, of course, Zimbabwe has already amply demonstrated its vast economic incoherence, and that, historically, it has been unable to keep its people from voting with their feet. This time around, its people already have recognised the obvious reality that the country’s leadership has a near-monopoly on violence, even as it is no longer divinely ordained and infallible. These same people have also noticed that the government’s only real fallback is the use of force – ineffectively and employed in an undisciplined manner.
Stir all these themes together and the resulting mix is virtually a recipe for a new major migration of frightened people when things do not go well. But on this side of the Limpopo, there is no apparent sense of urgency or concern. Repeated efforts to elicit comment from the South African government’s foreign affairs department on dealing with Zimbabwe proved unsuccessful, beyond that one anodyne statement above.
Looking ahead, the metaphorical rubber may well meet that symbolic road when the Zimbabwean people begin to realise, one and two at a time, then in their tens, hundreds, and finally, in their thousands, that the best path towards their safety lies southward. When that happens, South Africa may get to relive its own version of the chaos of those early days during the Syrian migration on to those small Aegean islands, or in the tent cities at the Syrian-Turkish border. And with all the domestic political fury this migratory wave has caused in those nations most affected by that human tide.
Over a year ago, reviewing the governing party’s draft foreign policy document, this author noted two key missing themes in that paper: the need for effective economic diplomacy and planning for how to deal with a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. So far, the guidance on the latter still seems rooted in that earlier strange embrace South Africa had with that country during the Mugabe era, and an apparent unwillingness to see, now, how the ground has changed so dramatically – and how it may lead to a crisis in South Africa. So far, the approach seems to channel French king Louis XV’s comment about his government’s budget issues and its languor in dealing with its crises: “Apres moi, c’est le deluge.” (After me, the deluge.) DM
"Censorship of anything at any time in any place on whatever pretence has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot." ~ Eugene O'Neill