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Give Zimbabweans citizenship

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The government has made a welcome move to encourage illegal Zimbabwean immigrants to become documented visitors with work or study permits. It should go further, and grant citizenship.

The South African government, in consultation with Zimbabwean government representatives and interest groups, has recently made an offer to Zimbabweans living in South Africa illegally. If they approach the Department of Home Affairs to surrender false South African ID documents and present valid Zimbabwean travel documents, they will avoid penalties, and will be given valid work or study visas.

This is a welcome development, considering that three million or more migrants are in this country, mostly to escape the economic hardship of their home country.

This is a great time to go further, however, and open our borders to those who believe they can earn a better living in South Africa than in their own countries.

Immigration is not a simple issue, but it is worth remembering that until a century ago, there was no such thing as border control. People who had the means to travel freely moved to where they believed they could make the best living.

The result has largely been positive, from an economic point of view. Successful countries, in which people were free to work, trade and keep the fruits of their labour, acquired productive people and became wealthier as a result of immigration. A growing population was a proud national symbol of prosperity and success. By contrast, poorer countries, where the conditions of production were not favourable, experienced an exodus of people seeking a better life elsewhere. This reduced the pressure on their limited resources, and in many cases, those who remained behind were supported with remittances from abroad.

Besides the economic benefits of free migration, however, there is a strong basis for it in a philosophy of fundamental human rights. To impose restrictions on the movement of people is not consistent with the right to individual freedom. No South African would dispute that it was cruel and unjust to subject migrant labour within the country to the “dompas” system. On what grounds, then, can we impose a restrictive immigration policy on others – and especially those from neighbouring countries who gave succour to South Africans in exile during the struggle against Apartheid?

As the Swedish economic writer Per Bylund put it: “The Berlin Wall may be gone, but the basic principle of it lives and thrives.”

The simple fact is that people are naturally attracted to the locations where they can be most productive – that is, where their expenditure in labour and capital attracts the best possible return. This benefits the places that offer such conditions – in this case, South Africa. Its people will find goods and services relatively more plentiful and less expensive, thanks to the productivity of immigrants.

Of course, no producer or worker likes competition in the market. However, it is well established that competition raises the aggregate quality of production, and as a result improves the real prosperity of consumers. It is for the sake of consumers, not producers, that we celebrate and foster competition in the market. For the same reason that governments should not grant robber-barons exclusive licences to produce their goods and services, or protect big companies from better competitors by means of subsidies or tariffs, it should not grant South African workers immunity from competition. Such competition is good for consumers – a group which includes the workers or producers themselves – by raising the quality and productivity of labour.

As long ago as 1935, the founder of the Austrian School of economics, Ludwig von Mises, wrote a perceptive essay, entitled The Freedom To Move as an International Problem. Although the world looked very different in his day, between the two World Wars, he describes perfectly the resentment many harbour towards the rich world today: “These people [in less well-developed countries] will certainly still have just as much cause to complain as before – not over the unequal distribution of raw materials, but over the erection of migration barriers around the lands with more favorable conditions of production. And it may be that one day they will reach the conclusion that only weapons can change this unsatisfactory situation. Thus, we may face a great coalition of the lands of would-be emigrants standing in opposition to the lands that erect barricades to shut out would-be immigrants.”

It is worth reading the essay in its entirety. Mises makes the case for free immigration far better than I ever could.

Now South Africa is considering how to deal with the influx of economic migrants into the country, as if this somehow represents a problem, rather than being an opportunity to improve our economy, and a compliment to the productive conditions we have created in our country.

Zimbabweans spent a lot of money and effort to escape the draconian arm of a law that would round them up in concentration camps like so much human vermin, and return them to their poverty without mercy or recourse. It stands to reason that they would be suspicious of declaring themselves, only to obtain a visa which may not be renewed six months down the road. This is no more than a temporary stay of execution.

I would propose that Zimbabweans who can show gainful employment and do not represent a security threat be granted full citizenship. They have demonstrated their ability to contribute to South Africa’s economy, and deserve the right to continue serving South African consumers in their efforts to secure a better life for themselves.

Of course, the biggest problem with free immigration is the burden this places on a welfare state. The obvious solution is to abolish welfare state policies, on the grounds that even in rich countries, they are not sustainable in the long term. Failing that, the government could forestall grievances on the part of South African taxpayers or users of its healthcare, education and welfare services, simply make new citizens ineligible for such services for a few years. By then they will be able to claim a right to such services by virtue of their own status as either taxpayers or active contributors to the South African economy.

The challenges of a welfare state should be no excuse for treating immigrants like lepers. A confident country should welcome immigrants. We say we are a free people. By what hypocrisy do we exclude others from the freedom we claim as a basic human right? DM


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