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Facing up to South Africa’s hidden and not so hidden xenophobia


Sasha Planting is a seasoned financial journalist and Associate Business Editor at Daily Maverick Business.

Xenophobia is rearing its ugly head again in South Africa, and it’s a matter of time before another vicious incident occurs that will cause us to hang our heads in collective shame, inflame diplomatic tensions with other African leaders, and directly harm trade and investment.

Remember how businesses like MTN and Shoprite were vandalised and destroyed in retaliation for the treatment of Nigerians in South Africa between 2015 and 2018? I was at the World Economic Forum on Africa in 2019 and the anger coming from Nigerian politicians and academics was palpable. If it’s not the EFF thugs terrorising restaurants to check on the employment ratio of foreign nationals to locals, it’s the growing support for Operation Dudula, a bare-fists campaign to force undocumented foreigners out of informal trading in townships.

There is no doubt that this is all fanning the flames of xenophobia. So when Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi announces that jobs in some sectors will be reserved for SA citizens, it’s hard not to see this as anything but tacit support for what the opposition parties are saying and doing.

Once again, the tail is wagging the dog. Of course, it is couched in diplomatic terms: “Every country in the world gives preferential treatment to citizens in terms of employment,” Motsoaledi told Business Day. That’s arguably true. In our context, the subject of employment is very close to our hearts (and stomachs). There isn’t a rational South African who does not suffer sleepless nights worrying about our crushing level of unemployment, particularly among the youth.

Equally, one must recognise that the economic failures to the north and east of South Africa, coupled with wars and ethnic cleansing in Africa and our very progressive refugee policies, have contributed to the flood of migrants who have entered South Africa. It’s a problem, and many are illegal, but who can blame people for looking for a better life?

Yes, we have a migrant crisis. The question is how to address it, and it’s not with cheap political point-scoring because the problem is too complex and multilayered for that.

As ANC elder statesman Mavuso Msimang reminded me, SA is a signatory to both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.

This legislation commits us to protect refugees and asylum seekers against unlawful expulsion or detention and gives refugees the right to employment, education, access to the courts, and freedom of movement.

Many broken and traumatised people who have arrived here from countries like the DRC and Burundi are highly educated and desperate to contribute to their host country.

As legitimate asylum seekers, we should embrace them and welcome them – they have walked a more painful road than many of us understand. Perhaps, rather than job reservation, Dr Motsoaledi should turn his attention to the real issues, such as curbing the rampant corruption within Home Affairs, where the facilitation of papers, IDs and passports is a lucrative side hustle.

And perhaps our government should recognise that it has contributed to the problem by failing to take a firmer line with the many warmongers, despots and dictators on our continent. If the ANC had not sanctioned the Zimbabwean election farce of 2008, perhaps we could, in good conscience, take a stronger stance against Zimbabwe’s economic migrants. What about taking a firmer line against the people who fanned the flames of the KwaZulu-Natal insurrection and directly contributed to the loss of hundreds of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs?

Job reservation is a red herring. Much can be done to resolve our intractable problems by sticking to the basics outlined in the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan of 2020, for instance.

These are desperate times but resorting to desperate measures is lazy and dangerous. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Louis Potgieter says:

    How about formally meeting with nascent xenophobia leaders, explaining SA’s need to comply with international conventions. Then charging them with sabotage if they persist.

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