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Immigrants & South Africans: The Institute of Race Relations’ lazy research

Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

Why are immigrants to South Africa more successful than locals? A new report from the Institute of Race Relations attempts to answer this question by implying that South Africans don’t work hard enough. But perhaps it was the research that was lazy.

The latest South African Institute for Race Relations (IRR) report, released in Johannesburg on Monday, is ostensibly about immigrants in South Africa. Who are these people, how do they get here, and how many of them are there?

But the report, written by author Rian Malan, is not really about immigrants. It is actually about black South Africans, and the real question that the report tries to answer is this: why do immigrants prosper when black South Africans don’t?

It is necessary, first, to understand something of the IRR’s world view. It brings a distinctly libertarian bent to political analysis, championing small government and individual agency in the pursuit of economic development. It also has a penchant for the controversial: infamously, CEO Frans Cronje questioned whether the University of Cape Town was becoming a “bush college” in the wake of the #RhodesMustFall protests, while the institute’s credibility was questioned when an investigation revealed that its report opposing the sugar tax was bankrolled by Coca-Cola.

In this context, it should come as little surprise that the IRR has chosen to court controversy once again. In its new report, entitled “South Africa’s immigrants – building a new economy”, Malan finds that black immigrants to South Africa are overwhelmingly more prosperous and more likely to find work than locals. He argues that this is largely because South African blacks don’t work as hard and are less persistent.

Strangest of all, the unemployment rate among these migrants is a fraction of our own. According to the academics who formulated this conclusion, this is ‘very unusual’. Foreigners arriving in a country where they can’t speak the language and often have no working papers typically struggle to find work. In South Africa, unemployment among foreign migrants is 14.6%, roughly half to a third of the local unemployment rate, depending on which definition is applied,” Malan said.

So why do foreigners seem to do so well here? The IRR points to several factors that might account for this.

Most significant is the helping hand and tight sense of community lent by existing immigrant populations. “Pilgrims come from far away, lured by reports of freedom, safety and opportunity in South Africa. Once here, they fall into the warm embrace of what academics call social networks – family, friends of the family, people from your home town, members of your own tribe or clan, and sometimes, just countrymen. Ethiopians help each other. Nigerians, Zimbabweans and Somalis likewise. Your people feed you and house you, give you a chance to prove yourself.”

Another major factor is that the type of immigrants that typically end up in South Africa are people accustomed to beating the odds. “Not all refugees and migrants succeed. But most do. That’s probably because migration is a great Darwinian selector. Throughout history, it has been the best and brightest, the toughest, who hit the road in search of something better. Such people are not easily deterred, especially if they come from hell-holes like the DRC, Somalia or Zimbabwe,” said Malan.

So far, so good, although nationals of the DRC, Somalia and Zimbabwe may reasonably take exception at the sweeping generalisation of their nations as “hell-holes”.

It’s when Malan tries to expand its analysis that he gets into trickier territory. After quoting a Zimbabwean worker who claims that “South Africans can’t do hard labour”, and outlining examples of how foreign-owned businesses have challenged the monopoly of white capital in certain areas, the report concludes:

Under these circumstances, it’s surprising that foreign traders have survived at all, let alone prospered to an extent where they can challenge ‘white’ domination in certain arenas. Their success is testimony to a rare triumph of the human spirit, and the endurance of allegedly outmoded values like hard work and perseverance… they have something important to tell us. It is not too late to listen.”

This conclusion is especially provocative given Malan’s casual dismissal of affirmative action in the report, which it described as motivated not by a desire to redress the ills of apartheid, but by the ANC’s belief that it “is impossible for black South Africans to advance without the assistance of laws forcing whites to hire them or promote them or take them into white-owned businesses as Black Empowerment partners”.

In other words, as per this reasoning, it’s not the structural inequalities that are keeping people in poverty in South Africa – it’s their work ethic. By ascribing the success of immigrants to “allegedly outmoded values like hard work and perseverance”, Malan implies the corollary: that those who aren’t economically successful are lazy.

But in making this not-so-subtle generalisation, the IRR ignores the factors that make immigrants uniquely poised to succeed in South Africa – factors that it had outlined earlier in the report. It also ignores the deeply entrenched structural barriers to addressing inequality in this country, barriers which have persisted long after legislated discrimination was dismantled.

This time, it’s not South Africans who are lazy. It’s Malan’s conclusions. DM


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