Editorial: South Africa, like the US, also locks up migrants

In 1938, before the Nazis had developed the “final solution” — which culminated in the Holocaust — the German government expelled thousands of Jews with Polish citizenship living in Germany. The initial idea was to expel all Jews from Europe.

In some cases, this included separating families by removing men and hoping Jewish women and children would leave of their own volition, sparing the Nazis the expense and effort of formal deportation.

Today, at the first Nazi concentration camp opened in Dachau in 1933 — shortly after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany — the words “Never again” are emblazoned on a striking memorial as a succinct but chilling warning to future generations.

Yet here we are.

The flood of images and a newly released ProPublica audio recording detailing the horror of children ripped from their parents and detained at the United States-Mexico border is becoming a tsunami. A common and wildly untrue response to this “zero tolerance” campaign is that it is “unAmerican” and runs counter to the nation’s mores. In fact, the breaking up of families has deep, tuberous roots in America’s past. Enslaved children were routinely sold separately from their parents on the auction block.


US President Donald Trump’s reasoning for separating families seeking asylum, and his restrictive policies against even documented migrants, is to prevent the US from becoming a mirror of Europe, specifically Germany — where, he has untruthfully claimed, migrants are driving up the crime rate.

In South Africa — which we see as “our land” — we too are watching the “borderisation” of the state, where security concerns trumping human rights and morality are the order of the day.

Perhaps we have become so numb and strung out by the government’s many failings that we are also employing its tactics by muddling, evading and inevitably shifting the blame to the most vulnerable in our society. Why are these outsiders here? Why do they not respect our borders? “If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country!” as Trump tweeted.

Even as we rail against the Trump administration’s “summer camp”/“boarding schools”/cages that essentially criminalise migrant children, we would do well to remember our own treatment of those detained at the Lindela repatriation centre.

It is almost exclusively black people who are incarcerated at Lindela, but we are more compelled to voice our anger against the Trump administration’s policy instead of looking at our own version of this practice. This “otherness” erases migrants’ humanity and negates our capacity for empathy. After our government has institutionalised their foreignness, locking them in the amber of inhumanity, we feign surprise each time violence flares.

Forms, red tape, queues, inhumane treatment. Long journeys to face being turned away or worse: arrest and expulsion. Outdated information, incorrect instructions, streams of funds changing hands only to lessen the pressing anxiety and humiliation. South Africa, like the US, knows the value of making life so untenable for its “brothers” that they think twice before seeking asylum. The seemingly endless battering of bodies, minds and souls continues until it is finally, abundantly clear: you are not welcome.

This, my brothers and sisters, is not your land.

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