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Rising tide of xenophobic rhetoric and state’s anti-Zimbabwean actions pushing SA to brink of crisis

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Tyla Dallas is Manager of Constitutional Programmes at the FW de Klerk Foundation.

We must take very seriously warnings like that from the UN special rapporteurs to International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor that ‘without urgent action from the government of South Africa… the country is on the precipice of explosive violence’.

Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights states that “every human being shall be entitled to respect for his life and the integrity of his person.”

There is reason for deep concern over the growing crisis confronting undocumented African refugees in South Africa.

There have been several outbursts of xenophobic violence in South Africa since 1994. At least 67 refugees died in xenophobic violence between 2000 and 2008, and by the time the nationwide violence of 2008 subsided, there had been over 60 murders, dozens of rapes, 700 serious injuries, and more than 100,000 migrants had been displaced from their homes. There were further episodes in 2015 and 2019 — which led some African countries to repatriate some of their citizens.  

Nobody knows how many refugees there are in South Africa. Estimates vary from two to four million. According to the United Nations International Organisation for Migration, the percentage of South Africa’s population born outside the country increased from 2.8% in 2005 to 7% — or four million — in 2019. Some of this number would have official status of some kind, bringing the estimated number of undocumented refugees in the country to just under three million and making South Africa one of the largest hosts of refugees on the African continent.

A number of recent developments point to an imminent crisis.

Around 182,000 Zimbabweans — many of whom have been in South Africa for more than 10 years — face the prospect of having to leave the country before the end of the year. This is because their Zimbabwean Special Permits – in terms of which they were allowed to reside in South Africa – have been withdrawn. This confronts the people involved with an enormous personal crisis.

Frantic scramble as December deadline looms for 178,000 Zimbabwean Exemption Permit holders

As the Helen Suzman Foundation has pointed out, many of them “have married South African nationals or have children who hold South African identification and travel documents. The minister’s decision (to withdraw the permits) accordingly threatens to break up families and displace people, if implemented.”

The expatriation of these Zimbabweans would also have serious implications for the businesses that employ them.  

The Covid pandemic has contributed to an unsustainable increase in unemployment — which now stands at 46% (expanded definition). In the Institute for Race Relations 2018 survey on “South Africa’s Immigrants”, it was stated that 62% of South Africans believed that illegal immigrants were taking jobs from South Africans — and many also thought that they were disproportionately responsible for crime.

In 2021, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s South African Reconciliation Barometer report found that more than half of all respondents said that they either trust foreign nationals “not very much” or “not at all”.

Changes to legislation — such as the Refugee Act and Immigration Act — have seen asylum seekers no longer afforded the right to work and study unless specifically granted. Refugees are prohibited from engaging in political activities and are subject to blanket exclusions from working in certain sectors of the economy without the “golden goose egg” — a permanent residency permit. 

At its policy conference in July, the ANC called for the further amendment of the Immigration Act to remove spousal and relative visas, as according to them, “there is no rational basis to link marriage and/or [a] form of relationship (relative) to the immigration factors”. 

All this resulted less than a month ago in a letter that United Nations’ special rapporteurs wrote to International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor, stating: “Without urgent action from the government of South Africa to curb the scapegoating of migrants and refugees, and the widespread violence and intimidation against these groups, we are deeply concerned that the country is on the precipice of explosive violence.”

In particular, the letter raised serious concerns regarding hate crimes targeting foreigners and their businesses, numerous changes to the system of issuing permits, and violent vigilante groups such as Operation Dudula. 

The toxic and tragic results of Dudula’s hate campaign in Orange Grove

The UN Refugee Agency defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence”. It goes on to say, “a refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group [and] most likely, cannot return home or is afraid to do so.” 

The UN report went further to note that the escalating violence is “often racialised, targeting low-income black foreigners and South African citizens accused of being ‘too black’ to be local.”

The SA government has until the end of this month to respond — but judging by the initial reaction by some state officials, the FW de Klerk Foundation fears that it will continue to downplay this issue and attack any member of civil society who dares say otherwise. 


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However, South Africa has clear international and national obligations regarding the treatment of refugees. As a member state to the African Union (AU), South Africa is bound to uphold the African Charter, which contains reciprocal obligations that include the responsibility to ensure the life and integrity of foreign nationals. 

Apart from this, the Constitution protects the basic rights of everyone who lives in South Africa. Most fundamental rights should also be enjoyed by refugees. The Helen Suzman Foundation and the Zimbabwean Immigration Federation have decided to challenge the withdrawal of the Zimbabwean Special Permits in Court.

Immigration presents a challenge to countries throughout the world — however, curtailing the limited rights and opportunities available to foreigners is not the appropriate response. It would serve only to perpetuate the scapegoating of refugees for the state of our economy, our unsustainable unemployment rate, and the lack of adequate services and resources when — in fact — numerous reports have found that foreigners stimulate the economy by starting new businesses and creating jobs.

It would also fail to address the barriers within the Department of Home Affairs that are preventing foreigners from obtaining a legal basis to remain. Incompetence and inefficiency in the department have created enormous obstacles for asylum seekers and refugees in their efforts to navigate the administrative burden of getting a permit. 

The government should heed the clear warning of the UN rapporteurs. Special steps should be taken to prevent another wave of xenophobia. The decision to repatriate Zimbabwean Exemption Permit holders should be reconsidered in light of the significant contribution they make to our economy and the rights they are supposed to enjoy in terms of our Constitution.

Bitter exodus — We travel to Harare with returning Zimbabweans

We should have learned, from our troubled past, the unacceptability of disrupting communities based on their identity and dividing their families. The removal of these people will have absolutely no impact on South Africa’s unsustainable unemployment — nor will it address the broader problems of the three million undocumented refugees in South Africa.

The appropriate response to all these challenges — like so many of the other challenges that confront South Africa — would be the adoption of policies that will ensure high levels of sustained economic growth that will restore the competence and integrity of governance. We should take our lead from the Constitution and the rights that it ensures for everyone who lives in South Africa — including refugees.

It is now for our courts to decide how — and whether — these rights can best be protected in the case of the Zimbabwean Examption Permit holders. DM

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  • Confucious Says says:

    It’s an horrific prospect! Instead of fixing their own ineptitudes and border controls, the ANC has given into populist garbage and taken the low road, the easy option. Yes, foreign nationals should be here legally, and the Permit holders should be allowed to stay. In a global economy and modern world, there is no place for this kind of behaviour. Chasing Zimbabweans out of SA is not a panacea for jobs. Perhaps the South Africans doing the chasing should ask why they, themselves never had the jobs in the first place. Very sad!!

  • Libby De Villiers says:

    The same government that was incapable to take charge, regulate and manage its borders has now changed its tune in order to please the disgruntled masses of people it has failed in every basic human right. The ANC now needs to placate people in order to win votes in the next election through more immoral, inhumane and dysfunctional behaviour.
    Congolese school teachers are working as car guards while we don’t have enough teachers and those we have are pretty useless. The medical system has not failed because we treat foreigners, but because of corrupt and and incompetent management. And so it goes – services, housing, water, power, education, jobs.
    So ubuntu is kicked to the curb, because of government thuggery, incompetence and pathetic leadership.

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