Immigration is a very serious issue, which the ANC government has mishandled for a long time. It is now likely to become a cheap but dangerous vote-catching net for populist demagogues with no lawful, practical solutions. It is also increasingly likely that we are just one incident away from an orgy of violence against foreign nationals, Zimbabweans in particular.
Before I propose a few practical steps towards a solution, it is important to place a few issues on the table, as avoiding them will perpetuate an unprincipled discourse, such as what we now have.
Admonishing a sick person – especially while being recorded for later public spectacle – is inconsistent with respecting the dignity of all persons, South African or not. It may speak to our deepest frustrations about the state of the country, but the responsibility of leadership means those entrusted with positions of power and influence must be careful to not behave in a manner that changes for the worse, the very moral character of our nation.
I do not want to live in a country whose people will one day celebrate when a human being is left to die in the corridors of a hospital because they are an undocumented, foreign national. Such a prospect may cause some people satisfaction, but it would simultaneously dehumanise the officials tasked with ignoring people dying right next to them.
It also invokes painful memories of the way black patients are often treated by nurses at many of our public hospitals. There are even satirical TikTok videos where young people display the same uncaring attitude as that displayed by Ramathuba. We must reflect on whether these daily humiliations have not transformed some of us into the very thing we detest.
It is common cause that most of the hostility is directed towards Zimbabweans. We did not get to this intense anti-Zimbabwean sentiment by accident. This situation was created through political and moral dishonesty, as well as deeply embedded corruption and incompetence over a period of about 20 years.
The crisis of state brutality and repression in Zimbabwe exploded into the global spotlight in the late 1990s when students hit the streets in protest, later followed by trade unions. By the early 2000s, there was pressure on South Africa – as the de facto democratic “light on the hill” – to take the lead in resolving the issue. Instead, the government of President Thabo Mbeki expended significant energy denying the existence of a crisis and admonishing anyone who proposed there was one.
It was at this time that he uttered the now infamous, “Crisis? What crisis?” This, as Zimbabweans fled across the border in their droves as beatings, detention, torture and extrajudicial killings became par for the course. I recall vividly some of the local debate when the late Morgan Tsvangirai came out of police detention swollen, limping badly and wearing torn clothes.
For leading the fight for a political alternative in Zimbabwe, he was branded “a puppet of the West” who apparently deserved, along with thousands of his supporters, to be brutalised. Some locals even cheered as this occurred alongside farm invasions.
Around 2003, a large Cosatu delegation was evicted from Zimbabwe and not allowed to conduct its fact-finding mission. The current chairman of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, then general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, and Zwelinzima Vavi were in that delegation. For the rest of the tripartite alliance, it was convenient for them to pretend the crisis did not exist.
Political choices have consequences, and the complaint we now hear about there being “too many Zimbabweans” in South Africa is partly of our own making through wilful ignorance and dishonest brokering.
Zimbabweans did not fall from the sky for no reason at all. We saw this coming and chose to look away, and for that we must take responsibility and seek solutions more honestly than we have before.
This is not to suggest that South Africa must wage a democratic struggle on behalf of Zimbabweans, but it is also dishonest to engage in fake neutrality that effectively perpetuates and legitimises the injustice and then cry like a spoilt baby when the chickens come home to roost.
What we complain about in respect of Zimbabweans will come to pass in the case of Swatis, who are also suffering under terrible repression by their king while we play dictatorship pal, as our government is prone to do.
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Steps towards a solution
In my view, there are a few difficult steps that need to be taken. The first is to change the tone of engagement with the Zimbabwean government from one of slavish persuasion to one seeking to solve what has become a potentially explosive internal driver of instability in South Africa.
We must make it clear that normal relations cannot continue between Zimbabwe and South Africa, with the latter having to shoulder the fallout of repression and misrule. If our offer to broker a real democratic solution is rejected, we must distance ourselves from that government.
Second, we must invest in border control and security. Expelling migrants who will simply walk back in a few weeks later is an exercise in futility. To do this effectively, we must also accept that the SANDF is weak and unable to perform its most basic functions, while the police force is riddled with corruption. Reforming and recapacitating both are key to effective border control and security.
Third, we must fix our broken immigration system. In addition to porous borders, the processing of asylum and other applications are an absolute abortion. Applications for highly skilled worker permits take forever, while low-skills roles in various sectors are filled by non-South Africans – it boggles the mind how the latter are processed so quickly while key skills are caught in a gridlock.
The situation is even more ridiculous with business visas, where, for instance, highly skilled Kenyans coming here on business are frequently treated like criminals and given limited period visas, while criminals and terrorists simply walk in and stay.
Fourth, we must begin a massive initiative of normalisation of immigrants – “normalisation” in the sense that every undocumented migrant must be given a timeframe in which to register and make a formal application for citizenship, work permit or asylum. This must be prefaced by a proper administrative system and capacity to make this happen as quickly as possible.
Such an effort must be pragmatic and humane, and take account of situations where undocumented migrants have intermarried and have children who know no country other than South Africa. Other countries have had to deal with the same.
Anyone who does not qualify on a range of criteria can be deported to then apply from their home country but, as stated earlier, this cannot work if the borders are porous.
Fifth, South Africa’s labour laws must be applied as required by statute.
People who secure work permits must either be highly skilled workers or refugees in terms of international and domestic law. The chaos we see where we can’t tell who falls within which category is merely a symptom of how the endemic corruption, neglect and incompetence of the past 15 years have decimated the civil service.
Uncontrolled immigration and related crimes are not a sign of disrespectful Zimbabweans and other nationals, but a symptom of a broken, corrupt state that has driven the economy to the brink of collapse and allowed crime to fester. A desperate South African population looking for jobs to put food on the table, and under siege from rampant crime, will inevitably resort to some form of vigilantism.
That means accepting the same level of responsibility we demand that Zimbabweans do in their own country, where we blame them for re-electing Zanu-PF. We do the same with the ANC here and expect to get a different outcome.
Ultimately, all these problems and solutions need a political class that fully appreciates its strategic challenges and has the capacity to deal with them instead of making populist interventions for cheap political points, while doing little or nothing to move the needle on any of them.
Far from being a hero, Phophi Ramathuba is a very public face of the incapacity we rely on – and that is untenable. DM/MC