Defend Truth


By promoting fear-mongering about immigrants, SA is at risk of deserting the principles of fellowship and ubuntu


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Let’s be realistic. If all immigrants left South Africa tomorrow, our triple challenges would remain.

They take our jobs. Yes, and they take our women. In fact, some of them are fine but Nigerians, no, they must go. Malawians are not too bad and make for great gardeners while Ethiopians take over our spaza shop industry. 

But why can’t you South Africans compete with them?

Well, it’s because they collude with each other, they buy in bulk and share among themselves. They pool their resources, you see, and that creates a competitive advantage. How dare they!

The hospitality industry in particular likes to employ foreign nationals at the expense of South Africans. Why is that? They have a good command of English, the restaurateurs will reply. They are more educated you see. 

Uber, Mr Delivery, Courier services, the tourism sector — all employ huge numbers of immigrants. Perhaps it’s because they are more industrious, entrepreneurial and seek out challenges. Or maybe it’s because, as many say, South Africans are lazy and entitled, wanting everything from their government, doing nothing for themselves, waiting for child support grants, special Covid-19 grants, indigent grants and so much more. Perhaps if immigrants could get such government assistance in their home territories, they too would not be coming to SA in search of greener pastures. 

These are some of the absurd and untested notions being touted in many quarters. What we really need is proper statistics — proper numbers we can assess before making such statements.

We know that many of the immigrants in SA are here due to forced migration. They are people who are running away from war-torn areas and political instability, they are economic refugees and much, much more.

The challenge of bribery at our borders complicates matters. I mention it because in this debate commentators often throw in a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. Many believe that because of our porous borders, and the weakness of Auntie Pat’s makeshift R300-million fence along some of our northern border, we have a great many illegal immigrants in the country. But is this notion backed up with facts and stats, I wonder?  We know that the agriculture sector uses (and abuses) many of these foreign nationals. Farmers can pay low and exploitative wages rather than employing local South Africans who supposedly demand higher wages and constantly threaten to join unions. 

The first thing we must understand, which it seems both people in government and certain people outside don’t get is that you can’t control migration; you have to rather manage migration. There is no real point in building higher fences and having more and more border controls.  What is needed is a multi-departmental approach. This should include the departments of labour, international affairs, home affairs and SAPS, etc. All must work together if they are to succeed in protecting our sovereignty. Yes, there will always be policy dissonance but this must serve as encouragement to butt heads and find lasting solutions. It is a reality that Home Affairs can only issue visas according to other departmental policies. If we are in dire need of teachers or engineers etc, then the necessary visas should be facilitated. Of course, the notion of border control also gives a sense of security, safety and protection but the root causes of immigration must be dealt with. Military dictatorships, successive governments who are abusive towards their citizens, a scarcity of resources and basic needs like food and water.  These are but some of the root causes.

What makes foreigners choose to run to SA? 

It must be our crumbling infrastructure or our non-existent job market.  Nah, must be our peace-loving stable political climate or perhaps our world-renowned constitution that protects immigrants equally before our law. Or is it the fact that once you’ve made a bit of cash you can access our first-world banking sector and send money home to the DRC, Zimbabwe and further afield with no hassle whatsoever? 

Whatever the reasons, we have to learn to live together in this, our beloved country. There is much we as South Africans can and must learn from these immigrants. Our over-reliance on our government is problematic. A bit more self-initiative, entrepreneurship and less entitlement are very good qualities to cultivate. 

However, immigrants can also learn a thing or two from us South Africans.  Our constitutional democracy, whichever way you slice it, is working.  There isn’t massive political upheaval and there hasn’t been for the last 30 years. Public-good institutions such as higher learning institutions are working and, by and large, they are public, not private. Traffic laws are adhered to for the most part even when we experience load shedding. And yes, we have an independent judiciary and a robust and independent media. So, learning can go both ways. 

In the midst of this highly emotive context, we have political point-scoring taking place in our country, with immigrants in the firing line. How disgusting that the EFF and ActionSA leaders use this issue to score cheap gains and boost support. They know that where the impact of this issue plays out is not among the middle class but actually among the working people in our townships. The tinder that can so easily be ignited and lead to deaths is being put to the test by so-called responsible politicians. A very dangerous game indeed.

There is an argument advanced by many that we must welcome immigrants because they stood by us in our hour of need. But it is a misplaced sentiment. They did indeed accommodate us and give us refuge during the dark days of apartheid and of course, we remain grateful for such solidarity, but our approach to fellow Africans should rather be premised on broader principles of fellowship and ubuntu. We must welcome each other’s cultures, diverse beliefs, food and traditions. We must combat all forms of xenophobia and racism wherever it arises. 

I attended the celebration of South Africa’s first 10 years of democracy in Tshwane in 2004. When Professor Ali Mazrui was asked then what lessons we as South Africa can learn from the rest of the continent, his answer was most intriguing. He reminded us of the Four Vs and said, many post-colonial African countries had fallen victim to all of them. As South Africa, he said, you have been the victim of Apartheid; now you are the victor post-liberation; you are becoming the vanguard of South Africans undertaking the transformation project; and let us hope you are not, like many other African countries, going to become the villain who acts against your citizens and other fellow Africans.

How far have we travelled, and what a great villain we have indeed become; blaming immigrants for all our challenges and woes. Let’s be realistic. If all immigrants left South Africa tomorrow, our triple challenges would remain.

So, let’s get it right: immigrants is not a swear word. DM



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