South Africa must tighten its immigration policies and strictly protect its borders — even if this is labelled anti-African behaviour, says Home Affairs Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize.
The government could no longer be lenient when it faced the “real challenge” of locals’ hostility towards immigrants for which the department could not account, she said in an interview.
“The policy has to be tightened and set limits as to what people can do. Especially during this phase of high rates of unemployment, high levels of poverty [and] inequities that people are complaining about.
“We cannot be too liberal as though we are not dealing with a real situation that affects people [South Africans] on a daily basis.”
The immigration regulations are a priority for Mkhize after Cabinet approved the white paper on international migration in March, which outlines a policy for amending immigration and refugee laws.
Mkhize was the deputy minister of telecommunications and postal services until April, when President Jacob Zuma controversially reshuffled the Cabinet and Malusi Gigaba moved from home affairs to become finance minister.
The department has been lauded for exceeding its targets in issuing smart card IDs and improving the efficiency of its online applications systems, but said it was unable to even estimate the number of undocumented immigrants in South Africa.
“Virtually everywhere you find people with no legal documents, all over. That talks to weaknesses in our border ports,” Mkhize said.
Combatting corruption in the department is another of her priorities. She had found it “depressing” to uncover the levels of corruption and the syndicates in the department that undermine efforts to create a credible national identity register.
“People get involved in unlawful marriages, where there are women who will agree to assist a person by marrying them,” she said. “It’s almost like it’s systematic, something which has got roots now in each and every corner. When you ask, ‘But how did it happen? Where was the priest?’ They have priests who collude; they have police who collude and some of our officials who collude, and citizens who also collude.”
Since 2015, 85 home affairs employees and 81 members of the public have been arrested for alleged involvement in such syndicates.
Last year, the home affairs department was reclassified to fall in the justice, crime prevention and security cluster to enhance its role in ensuring national security, particularly at the borders.
The minister is disappointed that members of Parliament did not pass the Border Management Authority Bill. A walkout by the opposition late last year and again in May this year stalled the Bill.
It proposes the creation of a single authority — comprising police, customs, the agriculture department, the South African Revenue Service (Sars) and overseen by the department of home affairs — responsible for ensuring legal travel through the country’s border posts. Sars is responsible for customs and excise and revenue collection. The opposition parties say this will be threatened, and the border authority will take over Sars’s functions. The Bill was proposed in 2009 and first tabled by Gigaba in 2015.
Mkhize said it also appeared that MPs who were present, even those from the ANC, had failed to properly engage with the contents of the Bill.
The white paper on international migration and the Bill are intended to ensure government can account for all citizens and visitors.
Mkhize said particular sectors were complicit in “harbouring” employees who were undocumented foreigners.
“In the hospitality industry there is a lot that is going on,” she said. “Half the time the people who work at dinner time to serve people [in restaurants] some of them they don’t have the right papers. The people in the private security sector some of them don’t have the right papers.”
She added that she’d been talking to Minister of Tourism Toko Xasa “so that we look also in her sector as to what is going on”.
Mkhize asserts the need for stringent immigration regulation by government, but also slams Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s comments in December, linking undocumented immigrants to crime in the city.
“If you talk like that being a public representative, you could just fuel xenophobic attacks, because people will say, ‘Yes, the mayor is right, we must deal with them’,” Mkhize said.
Asked about the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which called for visa-free travel on the continent for all Africans by 2018, Mkhize said her department backed the idea, but that countries such as South Africa were too socially unstable to implement this policy.
“If we do not manage the process of free movement within the continent, we could end up with a crisis,” she said. “Remember our triple challenge [unemployment, poverty and inequality] is real and we know from other parts of the world that that’s what triggers a revolution.
“People will revolt against the government of the day if they feel they’re in competition with everybody.”