/ 23 July 2009

SA: Africa’s ‘magnet for migration’

As South Africa gears up to host next year’s World Cup, it is taking steps to make sure the fans go home when it’s over.

South Africa, the strongest economy on the continent, has an estimated three million to five million undocumented African immigrants in a population of 47-million, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations, and their presence has already sparked violence.

Now some are predicting eased entry procedures for the month-long tournament will make things worse.

George Khola (36), a Ghanaian who sells fruit and vegetables at a Johannesburg market, is sure that the migrants’ numbers will soar with the approach of the games.

”This is the chance,” he said. ”The whole of West Africa will come.”

Others say that with or without the World Cup, migrants will keep coming in search of jobs, or as refugees from persecution and poverty.

”We know that South Africa is a magnet for migration on the continent,” said Morne Fourie of the government agency that regulates immigration.

Dr Darshan Vigneswaran, a migration expert at the University of Witwatersrand, says migrants will keep coming because entry is easy enough by paying a bribe at the border.

The government says it is working on ways to balance welcoming the fans and making this an event for the whole continent, without compromising borders.

”This is Africa’s World Cup, not just South Africa’s,” Fourie said.

South Africa is spending nearly $145-million to streamline entry for the games. It is the first World Cup host to offer an ”event visa” for visitors from countries lacking visa-free arrangements with the host government. They will have to show a purchased match ticket, an address while in South Africa and a return ticket home.

Immigration officials will run spot checks on the addresses and deport over-stayers. But finding them could be difficult. Once inside South Africa, it should be easy to melt in among the illegal immigrants already here.

Fourie acknowledged that corruption at border posts is a problem, said it wasn’t unique to South Africa, and believed that machine-readable passports would help to curb it.

‘Powder keg’
Tensions were ignited in the spring of 2008, when South African mobs attacked townships where immigrants live, killing more than 60 people and scaring thousands into leaving the country.

”That powder keg is still there,” said Vigneswaran. ”In a year of economic downturn, as very wealthy people celebrate [the World Cup], there will be people being killed in townships for being foreigners.”

Nde Ndifonka of the International Organisation for Migration, said such violence is one of its biggest concerns, but doubted many migrants during World Cup would stay.

Still, anti-migrant sentiment is evident, with many citizens blaming them for the 25% jobless rate and high crime.

Sitaka Shange, an office worker, said that until the government addressed crime and deported illegal immigrants already in the country, she wouldn’t consider South Africa ready to host the World Cup.

”They come here and take jobs,” Shange said. ”They will agree to a salary that South Africans will never agree to.”

Kevin Sithole, who said he had fled economically devastated Zimbabwe a few months earlier, believed the World Cup was bound to attract illegal migrants, and he didn’t think the government could prevent it.

”When the time comes I want to be here,” said Sithole (21), a street hawker of gum and cigarettes in Yeoville. ”A lot of people will be making money.”

Despite the government’s promise to curb the flow, Khola, the Ghanaian, seemed to think the World Cup meant open borders. ”For the World Cup, they give a visa to everybody,” he said.

There are also those who apparently believe that Africa’s borders, being the product of European colonial rulers, shouldn’t even matter. On a wall near Khola’s fruit stand, graffiti was scrawled on a wall: ”Who Drew the Borders Anyway?” — Sapa-AP