​High fences and unworthy foreigners: Anti-poor immigration plans and rhetoric in SA

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with extreme poverty and hardships experienced by millions of its primarily black citizens. The inequality is rooted in the country’s colonial and apartheid past and the post-1994 failures to transform the economy and society. It has nothing to do with immigrants.

Yet, immigrants – legal and illegal – continue to be blamed for many of South Africa’s woes.

In a speech in the National Assembly on 13 March 2018, Haniff Hoosen, member of the parliament and the opposition Democratic Alliance Shadow Minister of Home Affairs, said that ‘the employment of illegal and undocumented immigrants has a direct impact on our job creation abilities as a country.’

The DA argues that foreigners are the cause of high unemployment rates. They are stealing jobs from South Africans and this must be stopped.

Research and evidence show something completely different. Immigrants ‘do not take jobs from South Africans overall – in fact, a best-case scenario suggests that they are creating a small number of jobs where they settle.’ Most immigrants do the work that South Africans choose not to. Many work in the informal sector and a large number of migrants run their own businesses and positively contribute to the country’s economy through paying of rent and VAT.


Hoosen also said that South Africa is making it very difficult to attract skilled immigrants into the country. At the same time, he said, ‘we are the masters at attracting unskilled immigrants.’

He is right about the red tape and the many difficulties that the skilled foreigners face if they want to get a work permit. Much can be done to improve this.

But while doing so, Hoosen and the Democratic Alliance separate international migrants into worthy and unworthy people. Worthy people are well educated and qualified. Unworthy ones are poor and lack the skills and qualifications that the South African economy needs.

Worthy people are welcome in South Africa. They can come, alone or with their families, and stay as long as they wish.

Unworthy and unskilled are not welcome. They have nothing that South Africa needs. Most of them are criminals, according to DA’s Herman Mashaba. Those who have made it into the country should be deported. Others who are still thinking about coming in must be prevented by any means.

South Africa must build a fence so high that the foreigners can’t jump over, the DA proposes.

These plans to build fences and make immigration ‘merit-based’ in order to attract highly skilled foreigners and keep out the unskilled ones is straight from Donald Trump’s playbook.

However, in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance isn’t unique when it comes to the anti-poor immigrant rhetoric.

Here, the DA is only copying the ANC-led government. The White Paper on International Migration, drafted under the leadership of then (and again) minister Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, and approved by the South African government in March 2017, sees the poor and unskilled international migrants – most of whom are from the African continent and are coming to South Africa in order to escape hardships, conflict or prosecution and are in search of better life and/or safety – as unworthy masses that threaten South Africa’s security, stability and economic prosperity.

The future immigration plans will be aimed at preventing the poor African migrants from coming to South Africa by any means, ‘even if this is labelled anti-African behaviour,’ as the former Minister of Home Affairs, Hlengiwe Mkhize, pointed out in June 2017.

This despite the fact that South Africa is not overwhelmed by immigrants, who make up only 2.8% of the population according to the Stats SA Community Survey 2016. In addition, foreigners are not taking away jobs, services and resources from South Africans, as pointed out by the Department of Home Affairs in the Green Paper on International Migration in 2016.

The ANC government goes even further than the DA. It doesn’t only plan to build taller fences to prevent poor foreigners from coming in. It also plans to build large detention centres where the asylum seekers will be held until their applications are processed. Never mind that this would breach the country’s Constitution, as pointed out by the Lawyers for Human Rights. Anything to keep the unworthy out.

At the same time, the White Paper welcomes with open arms wealthy and qualified immigrants. Their applications for permanent residence will be fast-tracked, just as it happened with the Gupta family.

Fear-mongering and dehumanisation of the other – particularly the powerless and poor foreign other – are the order of the day in South Africa. Xenophobia continues to be widespread in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ on all levels of the society. However, those who reject or dislike foreigners are not necessarily anti-immigrant; they are anti-black immigrant, as Panashe Chigumadzi points out.

White foreigners and immigrants, including this writer, don’t experience xenophobia. That’s reserved mainly for poor black foreigners from the rest of the African continent who often face Afrophobia, hostility, threats, violence, looting, displacement and even murder in South Africa.

In this environment, political parties, government officials and policy makers see anti-immigrant, xenophobic and Afrophobic rhetoric as a way to attract votes. As the campaign for next year’s elections heats up, we should expect more of this kind of anti-black and anti-poor immigrant propaganda and stereotyping in the attempt by the parties to hide their own ‘spectacular failure to deliver economic justice’ and improve the lives of poor South Africans.

Dr Savo Heleta is a researcher at Nelson Mandela University. He is an immigrant in South Africa.

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Savo Heleta
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