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Opinionista

Opportunistic politicians are yelling into a void created by the silence of migrants

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Dr Philani Lithandane Ndlovu is a Unisa alumnus, academic legal researcher and law tutor at Unisa’s College of Law. He writes in his individual capacity and opinions expressed here are entirely his own.

As South Africa grapples with numerous social, political and economic challenges, immigrants have been blamed as the cause of these challenges, resulting in informal campaigns such as Operation Dudula and Put South Africa First, which are ostensibly focused on driving illegal immigrants out of the country.

The voice of the immigrant, meanwhile, has remained conspicuously hushed and muted, creating an unhealthy monologue in which the attribution of fault never gets to be gainsaid or contradicted.

The reason for the silence is that immigrants who hold various types of residents’ permits and visas enjoy residence status at the sufferance of the host. There is the lingering possibility that reckless utterances may upset the host and trigger an immediate withdrawal of the indulgences.

The proliferation of self-styled campaigns is an implosion of dark subterranean forces that are fighting for the soul of the nation, enabled by the convergence of opportunistic factors that sneak into public discourse via the back door of poverty and frustration.

In all this, the colonial origin of migration and its attendant benefits for South Africa go unmentioned. Interlocutors conveniently overlook the fact that South Africa used to run a system of labour recruitment from its neighbouring states, including Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

It is seldom acknowledged that South Africa has been the main destination for migrant labour on the continent since the discovery of gold and diamonds in the 19th century. The country developed at the expense of other SADC states, whose labour literally built its infrastructure.

Considering that the end of apartheid did not immediately put an end to immigration patterns, the pressure on the economy remains immense. Because of a steepening competition for jobs, worsened by the declining economy, antiforeigner sentiment has reached a crescendo, threatening to throw public order into disarray through vigilantism. Gangs are usurping the functions of the police under the guise of enforcing immigration control.

The scary reality is that these gangs have innumerable sympathisers across the social spectrum, with some believing their programmes are necessary.

As such, numerous and implausibly ludicrous accusations are being made against foreigners, among them that they commit crime, take up job opportunities meant for locals and do not pay tax.

Glaring logical fallacies, one of which holds that the departure of foreigners will immediately create job and business opportunities for the citizens of the Republic, are entertained without testing their merits. That immigrants are players in the economy, serving both as consumers and suppliers, is disregarded. But they are not “external factors” who can just be removed without causing systemic disruptions.

Easy advantage

Taking advantage of the popular view that illegal immigrants are outcasts who do not deserve the protection of the law, political players and informal movements prey on them as easy scapegoats, verbally targeting them in the quest for political relevance.

Although mainstream political formations such as the African National Congress, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are constrained by the law regarding statements ethically permissible in drawing political manifestos, informal campaigns are willing to depart from the rule book through strategies designed to get them quick political support – regardless of the impact on society.

In characterising themselves as apolitical, the movements position themselves to attract support from the broader cross-sections of society through the lure of quick power, sustained by sensational promises of immediate benefits.

When it is expedient, political actors such Herman Mashaba (Action SA), Kenny Kunene, Gayton McKenzie (Patriotic Alliance) and other extremists harness the energies of informal formations to do their dirty bidding. They ride on the wave of the movement’s spontaneity for easy advantage.

Events surrounding the arrest of Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, known as Nhlanhla Lux, have unveiled the centrality of informal formations in shaping the political landscape and their potential as kingmakers in the coming elections. In a quest for relevance and by openly fighting for Lux’s release, Kunene and Mashaba have affirmed themselves as his partners.

The dangers posed by such informal organisations include the absence of regulatory controls on their operations. They escape scrutiny and accountability to the point that even the state becomes a subject of their populist, whimsical and spontaneous programmes.

Their cheap popularity with the masses poses existential threats to established parties, causing them to bow down to populist demands and to join the bandwagon of vigilantism to retain relevance.

The success of Action SA in the 2021 local government elections, directly attributable to antiforeigner campaign slogans, demonstrated the power of the anti-immigration mantra. Not to be outdone was the EFF, which subsequently undertook a tour of business premises with the objective of investigating the employment of foreign workers and citizens.

The polemical utterances made by Kunene and McKenzie, coupled with their unsanctioned tours of foreign-owned businesses in Eldorado Park, also demonstrated their use of antiforeigner mantras as a convenient political tool to broaden their support base.

Unless change occurs, the future political discourse will rest on making choices between harnessing Lux’s energies and charisma for mainstream political programmes, or silencing him through the deployment of state machinery. He has to demonstrate whether he is the master of his own destiny, competent to pursue an independent political path, or whether he is a remotely controlled puppet.

For broader society, however, the danger of deploying vigilantism as a way to handle national problems has the potential to linger on long after the last foreigner has left the country.

Political opportunists who ascend the throne on populist “hate speech” tickets will no doubt deploy the same tools to sustain their positions. Against this backdrop, it is advisable for South Africa to choose the correct political trajectory. DM168

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

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