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APRIL 28 2015, Business Day (South Africa)
African leaders, a selfish lot at the best of times, have a duty to reflect honestly on why the continent’s people are left with no option but to flee to countries they may not reach, or face terrible abuse once there.
ON THE same day Mozambican immigrant Emmanuel Sithole was murdered by local thugs in Alexandra township, a tragedy of biblical proportions was to unfold in the Mediterranean Sea. A distressed, unseaworthy and overloaded fishing boat carrying illegal African and Syrian migrants to Europe collided with a ship that was trying to come to its aid. It sank, killing hundreds.
Neither the first nor the last, the incident triggered little to no reaction locally as we grappled with our own violence. The rest of Africa’s discourse also seemed focused on SA’s violence and little to nothing on the high seas of Europe where so many Africans died trying to find a better life away from home.
Both developments and the responses to them are an incisive indicator of Africa’s everlasting problem, of which xenophobic violence and lives lost in foreign lands are a symptom. This is a profound inability to honestly appraise local political and socioeconomic problems as a primary driver of migration.
In SA’s case xenophobic violence in 2008 and at any point later should have been no surprise.
The escalation of Zimbabwe’s political repression and economic meltdown early in the previous decade triggered an exodus. Many of those people, thought to number in the millions, settled legally and illegally in SA.
Sudden mass migration causes social, spatial and labour market distortions that require proactive policy responses to prevent social and other infrastructure from rupturing. The focus of our politicians at the time was on downplaying the problems in Zimbabwe, so the mass immigration was never acknowledged, nor was its effect properly assessed.
By 2008 the issue could no longer be ignored. Not only could immigration authorities no longer detain and deport people fast enough, there were also immigrants from other countries where political and economic decay were rife, such as Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. These people became victims of the backlash against SA’s own difficulties with structural unemployment, poverty and inequality.
There is much to understand, such as how many undocumented migrants there are, where exactly they live and what social and labour market changes have arisen as a consequence of their presence.
Documenting all migrants without criminalising them would also enable us to glean further information such as the skills they possess, and whether they cannot be gainfully employed to benefit the South African economy.
It is crazy that Zimbabwean teachers work as waiters while certain school subjects are short of teachers. Lack of understanding in these areas also means that we cannot formulate immigration-related employment policies, such as whether any local employer should be allowed to employ immigrants in certain professions at all, such as waiters or bricklayers, or for less than local rates.
We also do not know what conditions are present immediately before xenophobic violence breaks out, nor do we know why many other poor and high-unemployment communities have no violence despite being host to many African and Asian migrants.
Responses over the past two weeks have been philosophical and patronising on the one hand, such as saying the violence is driven by “self-hate” among poor black people. This school of thought says poor blacks need to be “educated about the continent and the struggle”. On the other hand we have supported overwhelming state violence, lately directed at people who may have had nothing to do with xenophobic attacks, such as the heavy-handed raid at KwaMadala Hostel.
African leaders, a selfish lot at the best of times, have a duty to reflect honestly on why the continent’s people are left with no option but to flee to countries they may not reach, or face terrible abuse once there. Immigration policy is a grubby business and cannot be effective if seen as isolated from its drivers and consequences.Cheap sentimentalism and selective outrage, coming when tough decisions about democratisation and governance are needed, have taken us nowhere, and will not help victims of xenophobia either.