The morning of the xenophobic march, a caller into a radio show of the national public broadcaster said, “It’s not the Pakistanis and the Somalis, but the Nigerians who are the criminals.” Such absurd views and national stereotyping are not new. The radio presenter dutifully read out deeply prejudiced SMSs, which listeners had sent in, without any comment on their stupidity.
Outrageous notions persist with depressing frequency: the Somalis cheat local businesses, the Zimbabweans steal jobs, the Chinese are smugglers, the Indians are crooks, the Nigerians are scammers, and local South Africans are dead beats, who prefer to live on social grants rather than lift a finger to help themselves.
Before the march a pamphlet circulated saying Nigerians and Zimbabweans ‘hijack our buildings, sell drugs, inject young South African ladies with drugs and sell them as prostitutes’. A march against an undeniable crime problem in the inner city is one thing, but a march against foreign nationals is utterly unacceptable.
Such prejudice against nationals of certain foreign states can be found among the rich and the poor; from civil society organisations such as the Mamelodi Concerned Residents (who convened the march) to city officials; from politicians on the left and centre to the far right; from nurses and teachers to the police. Police regularly extort bribes, victimise or fail to protect foreign nationals.
Recently, a circular was distributed by a primary school saying: ‘If any foreign child arrives here on Monday we will phone the police to come and collect your child and you can collect your child at the police station’. It said the instructions came after meeting Home Affairs officials. After a public outcry, it was withdrawn.
To mark his first hundred days in office, newly elected DA Mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba said he was “declaring war against illegality”, by which he meant the 115,000 undocumented, mostly African, immigrants he alleges occupy the inner city and are getting in the way of a business opportunity for property developers. So much for the man who founded the hair product line Black Like Me.
In the following weeks, Mashaba was pleading for peace and condemning xenophobia. But the dog whistle had been heard.
On a wing and prayer, South Africa has not seen the same scale of displacement, murder and mayhem it saw during the spate of violence characterised by Afrophobia of 2008. However, the country is on a knife edge. Any politician using the word “war”, while promising mass evictions and blaming immigrants for government’s failure to police crime and steward the economy is courting disaster.
Violence against immigrants has never stopped; it continually simmers with devastating consequences for innocent people caught in the middle. Eleven Somali nationals were killed in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, in the past month alone, including three shopkeepers who were gunned down on the same day at different locations according to police. The instances of violence against African immigrants in this new year countrywide are too many to enumerate here.
Officially, on paper and under the Constitution, South Africa has one of the best and most advanced approaches to immigration, allowing immigrants to settle freely wherever they choose and enjoy full and equal protection under the bill of rights. This is a humane, practical and sensible approach.
But on the ground, African and Asian immigrants face institutionalised bureaucratic harm, with numerous policy decisions and administrative actions being taken, such as closing access to processing centres, that almost seem designed to turn perfectly law-abiding foreign nationals into undocumented and therefore “illegal” immigrants. The immigration process is so opaque, most opt for asylum.
By not allowing people to work, study, become documented and assimilate, government creates the very conditions for which it then proceeds to blame foreign nationals.
There are now thousands of Malawians and Zimbabweans detained and living in the most appalling conditions in South African prisons.
Of course, there are also instances where South Africans have protected, helped or gone to the rescue of foreign nationals and where people co-exist quite happily. But politicians exploit prejudice. Lip service is paid to African solidarity, but it is clear that both the ANC and the DA want to clamp down on immigration in the erroneous belief that this will somehow relieve social pressures. It will not. Only the economy and a less corrupt government can do that. Wiping out a class of entrepreneurs and sorely needed skills will do more harm than good to South Africa’s failing economic engine.
A new green paper (a discussion document drafted by a Ministry and the first step to making new laws) from the Department of Home Affairs is extremely sinister, and so is the proposal for a new Border Management Authority.
Under the proposals, asylum seekers will lose their rights and will be prevented from living normally while their cases are being assessed.
Most alarmingly, processing centres are to built on the border, with the South African government seemingly not having learned a thing from the disastrous examples of the European Union, Turkey and Australia.
This is the South African version of Trump’s wall. It won’t work. It will create centres of misery and abuse. It will have a terrible effect on the areas where these places are created. It will harm South Africa’s international image and it will cost a fortune down the line.
It will be interesting to see who gets the contracts in the US to build Trump’s Mexico wall and administer it. Soon it will be time to start asking, the same questions, closer to home.