Migrant policy in the crosshairs

President Jacob Zuma visits a temporary shelter for displaced foreigners in Durban's suburb of Chatsworth following the recent violence there. (Elmond Jiyane, GCIS)

President Jacob Zuma visits a temporary shelter for displaced foreigners in Durban's suburb of Chatsworth following the recent violence there. (Elmond Jiyane, GCIS)

Something is different about the government’s reaction to xenophobic violence this time around. An interministerial task team was set up and the South African Defence Force was deployed to reclaim the authority of the state.

For the first time since the World Cup, special courts were set up and corporates and the government alike embarked on campaigns to publically condemn the violence.

And the rest of the continent made clear it would not take the attack on their citizens lying down.

South Africa’s economic prospects have become increasingly tied to that of the continent and lobby groups in Zimbabwe and Nigeria have called for action to be taken against South African businesses operating in their countries.

“Although there have been fewer deaths this time around, it certainly seems to have got more of a reaction from government,” said Dianna Games, chief executive of the consultancy Africa@Work.

“I think what this xenophobia and the way in which Africa is fighting back shows how integrated Africa and South Africa have become, and it’s something the ANC government needs to recognise – that it needs to be far more strategically aligned with other African economies.”

The king’s speech
An outburst of large-scale xenophobic violence, during which seven people were killed, began last week after King Goodwill Zwelithini said “foreigners must pack their bags and go home”.

Zimbabwe’s largest student body has called for attacks on South African businesses operating in their country and the Consumer Association of Malawi has called for a boycott of South African goods and services.

According to the BBC, MPs in Nigeria debated whether to use existing legislation to put pressure on South African businesses and local lobby groups threatened to attack South African businesses.

“When the South African government doesn’t address issues relating to African issues, it is business that suffers because it is the main South African interface with other African countries,” Games said.

A PwC economic adviser, Roelof Botha, said South Africa’s agricultural exports to Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states had increased dramatically in the past five years.

“We were a net importer of food two years ago but now have a surplus on that trade account directly as a result of trade with Africa,” he said.

African trade
In 2013, 29% of South Africa’s exports were destined for Africa and 43% of South Africa’s crude oil needs were met by other African nations.

The region’s growth, too, has been far stronger than South Africa’s and has prompted corporates to expand their footprint into other African nations.

In 2014, Standard Bank’s operations in the rest of Africa contributed 28% to group headline earnings and Barclays Africa contributed 19% of group revenue.

Shoprite’s non-South African operations contributed 14% to overall revenue in 2013.

MTN is the largest cellular service provider in Nigeria and, in 2014, it contributed 37% to MTN’s R146-billion revenue. South Africa contributed 27%.

Although the African growth story is well known, economic migrants from other nations continue to make their way into South Africa in search of opportunity.

But how many there are is not known because there is a dearth of information.

Immigrant data
The United Nations High Com­missioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, at the end of 2013, there were 65 000 immigrants with refugee status living in South Africa, and 230 000 asylum seekers, 46 000 of them from Zimbabwe, were awaiting decisions on their status.
In 2011, the International Organisation for Migration estimated there were 1.5-million Zim­bab­weans in South Africa. It is not clear how these figures were arrived at.

According to a report from the Migration for Work Research Consortium, only 4% of the working-age population, those between 15 and 64, in South Africa were from another country. They accounted for 1.2-million of the 33-million people with work.

Regardless of the available numbers, there is a perception that many more foreigners, documented or not, are living in South Africa.

From a refugees and asylum seeker policy perspective, South Africa’s is the most liberal on the continent and more liberal than many developed economies.

According to the UNHCR, most African countries, with the exception of Angola and South Africa, have encampment policies that restrict the freedom of movement and limit possibilities for self-reliance.

Naseema Fakir, the regional director of the Johannesburg office of the Legal Resources Centre, said: “South Africa’s Constitution allows protections that many First World countries don’t have.

“We do allow refugees and asylum seekers to work and access social grants. And so those in South Africa certainly have better rights that those in many other countries.”

‘Levels of incompetence’
But implementation of the protections was the government’s biggest problem and was “hampered by levels of incompetence”. This had resulted in huge backlogs and long queues and, as such, “a lot of people are left in limbo for a very long time”, Fakir said.

If foreigners were not properly documented, it was difficult to access services such as healthcare and education, she added. “I think not enough effort is made in government to deal with attitudes from the top down. And we see it filtering into societies.”

But South Africa’s liberal approach could change. Home affairs, under the leadership of its minister, Malusi Gigaba, is reviewing the immigration system. Already visa and migration policy has been tightened and, for one, migrants can now only regularise their stay from their home country and not from within South Africa.

The idea of establishing processing camps at the borders also continues to surface. Most recently, it was suggested by the ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe. This is despite a 2012 resolution by the ANC that the current policy of non-encampment should continue.

But, Fakir said, encampment would contravene South Africa’s commitments to the UN and the African Union and the law would need to be rewritten. In any case, she added, it would not pass constitutional muster. The Constitution protected rights such as freedom for even noncitizens.

Refugee reception offices
Miranda Madikane, the director of the Scalabrini Centre, which offers development and welfare programmes to migrant and local communities, said the closure of refugee reception offices in cities such as Cape Town and the opening of centres near the borders could have the intended effect of limiting the freedom of movement without having to rewrite legislation.

The centre has been involved in legal action with home affairs since the Cape Town office was shut.

“It’s a form of influx control. Since 2010, they have closed three reception offices,” Madikane said.

Asylum seekers are supposed to be given a date for an interview within three to six months of arrival, and a determination officer should decide whether to award refugee status, which may be valid for one to four years.

“[But] asylum permits can take up 10 years to process,” Madikane said. “So people would be bound to these areas and, in effect, ‘little villages’ [as a home affairs official termed it] would spring up around the reception offices.

“In the Immigration Act, there is no path for a low-skilled migrant to gain documentation, too.

‘Corruption coupled with incompetence’
“But, under the asylum system, it’s become an easy way to access work permits. And a huge number of economic migrants are trying to gain access to work permits this way,” Madikane said.

“Often this is about how much money you can pay. It’s corruption coupled with incompetence.”

She said the first step was to clean up the asylum system, but what was really needed was a low-skilled work permit.

“Under immigration law, you need quite high skills to get a work permit. In South Africa, we have plenty of low-skilled workers [so] we don’t need more. So I sympathise with government and I understand their reluctance to create low-skilled work permits. But, if they had it, they could control who had access to it.”

Madikane added that the cost of having refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa was low and there was no capital outlay. “But what would the costs of such camps be?” she asked.

Despite the struggles faced by economic migrants in South Africa, the reasons to stay are compelling.

Economics a strong force
Elinor Sisulu, a human rights activist and writer, said economics was a stronger force than the threat to life. Referring to Zimbabwe, she said: “A failed economic system combined with repressive human rights regime really is forcing people to migrate and, as long as that persists, it will push people out. Migrancy is normal, but tensions arise when there is an influx,” she said.

On top of that, South Africa’s systems were dysfunctional and unable to cope, she said.

First, there was a failure of intelligence. “These threats have been building up over a period of time. It didn’t happen overnight.”

Second, there was a failure at the municipal level to deliver services, she said.

“Then you have migrants better equipped in dealing in informal economies. They come from systems [where they have] been free to trade. They have the ability and capacity and have better survival instincts, and [are] much more cosmopolitan. They have ways of mobilising resources that our communities don’t have … Then, of course, corruption results in dysfunctionality.”

Sisulu said the influx of African migrants was not just an indictment of their governments and their human rights records but South Africa’s too.

“South Africa played a major role in maintaining the [Robert] Mugabe regime, and suppressing honest discussion.

“There is also the failure of the African Union itself to address these issues,” she said.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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