South Africa: Regional leader or xenophobe? | This is Africa

Politics and Society

South Africa: Regional leader or xenophobe?

South Africa positions itself as a continental leader, but the domestic reality is very different with immigration policies becoming increasingly stringent. This not only sanctions xenophobia but also exacerbates the country’s skills shortage.



According to a recent report on xenophobia in South Africa by Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley titled Imagined Liberation: Xenophobia, Citizenship & identity in South Africa, Germany and Canada, there has been a steady decline in the number of the African immigrants moving to Europe. This has caused South Africa to increasingly become an economic and political sanctuary for many facing dire situations within their home countries.

However, South Africa’s recent introduction of stricter immigration laws will effectively serve to close the country’s borders to African immigrants, many of whom add valuable skills to the local economy. The idea behind the Immigration Amendment Act is that South Africa should, as part of its policy to stem the inflow of immigrants, seek to help build ailing countries so that those who ordinarily would have considered moving to South Africa are more likely to stay and build a life within their own countries. That sounds fair enough, but shutting the borders is not the answer.

State-sanctioned xenophobia
This push to limit unskilled labour can be linked to the upcoming general elections and the role the strong labour lobby – in the form of trade unions (such as COSATU or National Union of Metalworkers (NUM) – play in these elections and the political realm in general. It is also, undoubtedly, a response to an ever-present xenophobic sentiment in South African society.

With the country facing a skills shortage (there are 470, 000 vacancies in the private sector according to Adcorp the Labour market specialist), this amendment may further serve to exacerbate the situation whilst also ignoring or failing to recognise human rights issues and obligations.


South Africa has positioned itself as a leader of the African continent, both within and outside of the continent, having taken up the mandate to head the African Union as well as seeking more prestigious positions within the United Nations. However, South Africa’s pending immigration policy does not speak to the country’s vision of being “a champion of (and within) Africa”.

With countries such as Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast seeing a surge of immigrants escaping uncomfortable political and economic situations, the move by policymakers to tighten regulations around immigration seems counterproductive.

The adverse effect this amendment is likely to have on the on previous ease with which skilled foreigners can be employed has also not gone unmentioned by critics.

Under the new law, it is the Director-General of Home Affairs who will have the responsibility of assigning critical skills visas by “determin[ing] a ‘critical skill’ in line with ‘national interest’”; previously, the Department of Labour had identified which skills were critical to the SA economy.

South African soldiers check the documents of residents of the Diepsloot township north of Johannesburg, South Africa (2010). Photo: Jerome Delay / AP

No one who follows the news can be unaware of the xenophobic attacks that made headlines in 2008, but the evidence of state-sanctioned xenophobia against foreigners can be traced back as far as the mid-1980s when Mozambican refugees fled south to escape hostilities in their own country. And, following a study on the rise of xenophobia in 2006, Queens University and the South African Migration Project (SAMP) described some of the unfounded stereotypes South Africans held of other Africans: Zimbabweans steal jobs; Nigerians deal drugs; Somali merchants force local shops out of business with cut-rate prices.

According to another SAMP study two years before, 20% of South Africans wanted a complete ban on new immigrants. Bear in mind that then, as now, the overall foreign population in South Africa constituted, at most, 4% of the total population of South Africa (current estimate of 1.6 to 2-million foreign nationals is 3 – 4% of the total population of >50 million; for a comparison, immigrants make up 11% of the US population). The 2006 report also noted that the “us vs. them” mentality seemed unlikely to abate much as long as the unemployment rate remained high. And that’s what the current immigration amendment taps into: the strongly held convictions relating to competition for jobs. “Why did the government let them in?”, the previous study quotes one Veronica Douman, a shopkeeper in Delft township, near Cape Town, referring to her newly arrived Somali competitors. “Most of our people have no work.”


In Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley’s new report, which was researched and written between 2011 and 2013, they quote Grade 11 and 12 learners in Khayelitsha who, when asked “What do foreigners contribute?” responded that they “have skills”, “can fix things”, “work together to secure goods cheaply”, but others considered them a burden – they “steal our women”, “peddle drugs”, “don’t pay taxes”, “kill babies” and “sell body parts”. The researchers note that this is “reminiscent of how anti-Semitism and other forms of racism work.”

A crowd, armed with clubs, machetes and axes goes on a rampage on May 20, 2008 during violent xenophobic clashes at Reiger park informal settlement on the outskirt of Johannesburg. Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

The origins of our superiority complex
Prior to the end of apartheid in 1994, most black South Africans had little contact with Africans from outside the country because of tight border controls established by the white-minority government. Loren Landau, director of the Forced Migration Studies Program at the University of the Witwatersrand, said back in 2006: “During apartheid, [black South Africans] were continually shown images of the rest of the continent as violent, corrupt and dangerous. They were fed an odd mix of superiority and inferiority: ‘Black South Africans are not African.’” Jacob Zuma’s recent advice to South Africans to not “think like Africans” did not come out of nowhere. It’s been an unpleasant shock for the black South Africans who bought into the idea of their own superiority to discover they are not as well educated as many of the Kenyans, Zimbabwean and other African migrants they have encountered since the end of apartheid (black South Africans were deprived of good schooling under the apartheid government). The SAMP report that these encounters sometimes led to notions of superiority among migrants themselves, some of whom deride South Africans as lazy or incompetent.

But some immigrants are also angry at black South Africa’s short memory. During the apartheid era, many South African exiles found safe haven in other African countries, yet since the end of apartheid people from these same countries have been made to feel unwelcome in South Africa, now that South Africans no longer need them.

Oddly enough, the ANC government’s campaign of social cohesion inadvertently exacerbated the “us” and “them” feelings. The redefinition of the boundaries of citizenship and belonging was based on the creation of a ‘new other’: the “non-citizen”, the “foreigner”, the “alien”, said Landau.

South African school girls walk past a trash bin bearing an a sticker against xenophobia. A number of Somali-owned shops were looted during a 4-day period of xenophobic violence in Port Elizabeth in September 2013. Source: AFP

Skills shortage
Thus, the re-conceptualisation of immigration laws seeks to address the tension caused by real or imagined competition between locals and foreigners, but the amendment disregards our skill shortage. The government will now face the problem of keeping out foreigners whilst the country grows economically and demands more skilled workers. The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) has pointed out that “the skills shortage in South Africa is ‘among the most significant constraints on the capacity of the South African economy to grow and to create jobs.’”  The fear by some is that the amendments will cause migration policies within the country to become too restrictive.

The most unattractive aspect of the new regulations is the need for companies to show they have performed a ‘diligent search’ and have been unable to find the requisite skills amongst South Africans. The problem with this provision is it needs a certification from the Department of Labour, which is infamous for its low capacity and slow processes.

These provisions ostensibly make it difficult for foreign nationals to live and work in South African, skilled or unskilled, no matter the reason for entry.


Anti-xenophobia protest in Johannesburg, May 2008. Photo: Reuters/Mike Hutchings

“Beat the system”?
The new restrictions also raise concerns as to how asylum seekers will be handled.

The Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) have expressed concern that harsher penalties and regulations will in fact swell the numbers of undocumented migrants as people attempt to ‘beat the system’.

Defenders of the amendments claim it will help to address abuses of the asylum seeker system, but it’s hard to see how this will not adversely affect immigrants from all categories, whether they are abusing the system or not.

With power comes responsibility
Despite being a national policy, the Immigration Amendments Act must be seen within the wider international context. South Africa has positioned itself both as a political and economic powerhouse – it is the only African nation within the rising BRICS alliance, even if we now know its economy is considerably smaller than Nigeria’s – while also having taken up a number of international leadership mandates.

With this great power comes great responsibility. South Africa’s rise within the region has opened it up to a host of opportunities within the continent, having been allowed access to the markets of a host of countries (especially within the SADC region) – access it has utilised, a fact that should not easily escape policy makers.

National policies and attitudes must seek to reflect the international role played by South Africa more effectively, both economically and socio-politically. Granted, it is not the sole mandate of South Africa to aid the continent; other regional leaders must also take up the mantle. However, South Africa has positioned itself as a champion of human rights and as an economic and political powerhouse, and thus local policies need to speak to these lofty international obligations.


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