Defend Truth


Anti-migrant sentiment is not good for democracy in South Africa


Tawanda Matema is the project manager assigned to the Migration Project and Dr Paul Kariuki is the executive director of the Democracy Development Program (DDP). The views expressed herein are their own.

Populist claims that migrants are stealing the jobs of South Africans are simply not true — the numbers speak for themselves. Those who perpetuate xenophobic rhetoric disrupt the day-to-day socioeconomic activities and wellbeing of ordinary people indiscriminately. It is those who are in the informal sector and who fall outside the protection of the police who are usually most affected when businesses such as hawkers and spaza shops are unable to operate.

South Africa began 2022 with an outlook that included optimism for a post-Covid-19 recovery. Level 1 pandemic restrictions were further eased, allowing for more social and economic activity in the country.

Unfortunately, persistent cycles of xenophobic and anti-migrant sentiment were not similarly on the wane.

South Africa faces an ever-growing unemployment rate coupled with scarce employment creation avenues, a crisis that has been exacerbated by almost two years of the pandemic. As a result, anti-migrant sentiment resurged, fuelled by the populist rhetoric that has always characterised the narrative on migrants in the country — “foreigners are taking our jobs” and the “put South Africans first” movement.

At the centre of the resurgence were political leaders riding on anti-migrant sentiments to rally the masses who are desperate for a solution to the social ills they face, mainly unemployment, inequality, poor service provision and chronic poverty.

This comes at a time when social cohesion and cooperation should be the focus of post-Covid-19 recovery, not further division. Anti-migrant sentiment in South Africa has hamstrung processes of socioeconomic recovery, with far-reaching consequences for democracy.

First, anti-migrant sentiments perpetuate a negative narrative about migrants and divert the efforts of policymakers away from a more inclusive and developmental trajectory. Instead of focusing on mitigating strategies to address the social ills of youth unemployment, including inadequate health provision and poor service delivery, attention has been focused on driving out of the country the so-called “illegal migrants’’, as if this would miraculously open up employment opportunities.

Apart from the social fragmentation being caused, terming such people “illegal migrants” is incorrect — they should be referred to as undocumented migrants because from a human rights perspective a human being cannot be “illegal’’.

Second, the sheer volume of pressure created by anti-migrant sentiments has been enough to influence short-term government policy with potential negative outcomes. In late 2021, the Minister of Home Affairs decided to withdraw the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit in a bid to mitigate the challenge of undocumented migrants in the country.

About 180,000 Zimbabweans hold the permit which will be valid until the end of 2022. Instead of motivating these people to go back to Zimbabwe, this move is most likely to result in an increase in the number of people becoming undocumented migrants in the country.

Furthermore, South Africa faces the challenge of a skills shortage, especially in the health and education sectors. According to the Sunday Times, the move by the Limpopo provincial education department not to renew the contracts of temporary migrant educators has resulted in a shortage of educators, especially in the maths and physical sciences, where some classes now have to accommodate up to 66 pupils. The province has faced a shortage of skilled educators since 2015 and temporary migrant educators have been providing the much-needed expertise to fill this skills gap.  

Third, anti-migrant sentiment has disrupted the day-to-day socioeconomic activities and wellbeing of ordinary people (South Africans and migrants alike). Political parties have been visiting local spaza shops to make inquiries about the employment of African migrants as against their South African counterparts, conducting quality checks on foodstuffs, and unconstitutionally investigating the legal status of migrants.

Protests against locally employed African migrants and hawkers who are alleged to be undocumented has affected local trade and social wellbeing. Local stores and hawkers provide an essential economic service by providing communities with cheap and easily accessible foodstuffs and essential products. Furthermore, the activities of hawkers, who are both migrants and local South Africans, are also important in providing income as most of the hawkers are breadwinners operating on a hand-to-mouth basis. These acts of anti-migrant sentiment have exposed indigent communities, including South Africans, to social risks.

Instead of turning to anti-migrant tactics, what can we do to enhance post-Covid-19 recovery in South Africa and promote social cohesion across the country?

As civil society, we must recognise the importance of dialogues with a wide range of stakeholders to explore pragmatic, evidence-driven solutions to the challenges facing the nation. The reality is that the current political rhetoric on migrants is not supported by data. For instance, Statistics South Africa estimated the total migrant stock in South Africa to be around 3.95 million in 2021, an estimation that included all types of migrants (documented and undocumented, students and experts, among others). In 2021, Stats SA also estimated the total South African population to be around 60.14 million. Comparing these figures, the narrative that migrants are taking South African jobs cannot be justified.

We stress these points to fill a fundamental gap between research and policy. Research is aimed at informing policymakers and political leaders who, in turn, have a responsibility to lead and direct a factual narrative, not to seek to hold sway over people with populist sentiments.

Anti-migrant sentiments have consequences for the livelihoods of South Africans and migrants. For instance, protests that force the closure of spaza shops and disrupt hawkers’ activities indiscriminately deprive indigent communities of the essential day-to-day products and services they require. It is these people, who are in the informal sector and who fall outside the protection of the police, who are usually most affected.

Cooperation is therefore key. It is important to create social security avenues for individuals in the informal sector. The police must work to protect hawkers and not discriminate against them on the basis of their migration status. The role of law enforcement is to serve and protect. When the police encounter hawkers operating outside the provisions of municipal bylaws, they should not employ violence or vandalism. Force should only be applied when necessary, and not against civilians who are not hostile and are only looking to make a living.

The pandemic affected everyone equally. The challenges we have experienced as humanity can only be mitigated by having all hands on deck.

Our collective resolve should be that the answers to the many socioeconomic and political challenges we face as a nation lie with every one of us who must play their part as active citizens. We should resist the temptation to deepen distrust and division in our society by tackling the difficulties we face in our society together, as partners in development. This is our call to action. DM


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