We need to prevent our Trump moment

So United States President Donald Trump is building a wall along the Mexican border after all, despite many hopes that his talks of doing this were empty populist campaign rhetoric. This wall is estimated to cost $15-billion and contrary to his campaign promises, it is Americans who will pay for the wall, not Mexicans. Trump also plans to impose a 20% tax on Mexican imports because, according to him, this is a “smart” way to make sure that Mexicans pay for the wall. Of course, this isn’t awfully smart as it is the Americans who will be buying these goods who will suffer most.

What I would like to discuss however is the xenophobic sentiment encouraged by Trump and how I believe our country could find itself building walls some day. In recent years, South Africa has had to confront Afrophobic attitudes, most notably during 2015 when violent protests against foreign nationals ended in tragedy. After some (late) interventions by government, community and religious leaders we managed to put these attitudes behind us. But for how long can we pretend our issues with foreign nationals are a thing of the past? Sentiments like these do not simply vanish but they rather simmer until a boiling point is reached and all hell literally breaks loose. Populists like Trump often help stoke the fires.

I recall an announcement by President Jacob Zuma in 2015 on how the government plans to control and restrict land ownership by foreigners in South Africa. This would happen, it was announced, through a land holdings law in terms of which foreign nations would be classed as “non-citizens” and would not be permitted to own land unless it was for commercial purposes if the dominant shareholder is from abroad. This attracted widespread criticism against the backdrop of the fatal attacks on foreign nationals that the country witnessed during the year.

Zuma leads a country that is grappling with land reform and has a sizeable presence of foreign nationals who, according to the 2011 census, comprise 4.2% of the population. I am not equating Zuma’s comments with Trump’s deliberate attempts to divide his nation for electoral gains but there is clearly an increasingly negative attitude to immigration and globalisation.

In 2015, then KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu convened the Special Reference Group on Migration and Community Integration to investigate the causes and consequences of attacks against foreign nationals in the province. The premier asked political parties to submit proposals on potential responses to the attacks. I had the opportunity to work on this proposal and a number of issues came to the fore.

There is a real belief and fear amongst some South Africans that foreign nationals are “stealing their jobs”. There is also resentment of foreigners who prosper in the country while many South Africans live in pitiful conditions.These issues (not a closed list) are complicated by the fact that foreign nationals now have children with South African citizens and it is therefore not practical or desirable to have a Trump solution of simply deporting people or banning them from the country.

There are no quick solutions. Global migration is not a new phenomenon as human beings naturally move around as they seek better prospects and building walls is not the answer. The South African government needs to play a stronger leadership role by promoting democracy and economic opportunities in some of our neighbouring countries. Quiet diplomacy does not work because as life becomes tougher in those countries, their citizens find South Africa to be an attractive escape. One would think we would have learned our lesson following the Mbeki presidency.

At the moment, the government’s mantra is that of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of another sovereign state, this is noble but it is not effective. Being allies means telling each other the hard truths and South Africa needs to grow a pair. We should not be satisfied with living in a democratic dispensation with a big economy like ours; we also have to work to make that possible for our friends too. Nobody leaves their country of birth for no reason. When our neighbours prosper so do we and when they suffer, we feel it as well.

I am encouraged by the actions of the Economic Community of West African States in relation to the recent crisis in The Gambia. This region showed that in standing up against each other, we are in fact standing up for each other as Gambians now have the chance to write a new chapter for themselves. This is a lesson I hope South Africa will learn.

Mondli Zondo is a Mandela Washington Fellow, a flagship programme of President Obama’s initiative for young African leaders. He is also the director of legislative research for the National Freedom Party in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature and he writes in his personal capacity.

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