An injury to an African immigrant is an injury to all

Baffling as it is for some of us, the idea that countries could legislate to preserve certain jobs and industries for citizens is beginning to take root.

According to reports, Botswana has moved to restrict participation of foreigners in its economy, preserving certain aspects of the economy for locals only. Zimbabwe, too, ironically considering Zimbabweans’ economic activity in South Africa, have stated that some of the sectors in their economy should, by law, be preserved for its citizens.

With the recent local government elections having shown that the matter of the immigrant, specifically the African immigrant, can be key in deciding elections, it is almost irresistible for a weakening party such as the ANC, desperate to increase support at the polls, to abandon all sense and compromise the African immigrant in order to retain power.

ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba is reported to have said that he does not “want to live in a country where foreign nationals come and open hairdressing salons and spaza shops. No. Those opportunities are for South Africans.” And for this he was rewarded handsomely at the polls. 

A focus on the African immigrant can propel almost anyone straight into a position of power. Because 2024 is a much bigger project that the 2021 local government elections, it is likely that the assault against the freedom of the African immigrant in South Africa will intensify, and if this happens (some will say it already is the case with campaigns like Operation Dudula and #PutSouthAfricaFirst), a panAfricanist movement such as the Economic Freedom Fighters will also potentially lose out on part of the electorate that feels foreigners are a weight we should shed.

It follows, therefore, that the matter of African migrancy is likely to be the determinant of who will take over the Union Buildings in 2024.

This is unfortunate because the ill-will against African immigrants is often fuelled by ignorance of their plight. 

The failure of our government to manage our borders better is not the fault of the African immigrant. Venality at our borders is not the fault of the African immigrant. The dearth of effective crime intelligence in order to stop crimes, including ones committed by some African immigrants, is not the fault of the African immigrant. 

Indeed, the failure of our government to create more possibilities for employment in South Africa for South Africans is not a fault of the African immigrant. The waitresses at popular eateries across the country are not in great number foreign because the foreigner intentionally plotted to have South Africans excluded from employment in the sector. The fact that many African immigrants are found working on farms is not because they stood in the way of South Africans to be employed there. Some of our domestic workers and nannies are aunties from bordering countries not because there were South Africans who were denied these jobs. The African immigrant does not become the owner of a salon or clothing store or a grocer because she would have connived against the locals, excluding them from participating in those sectors.

I can go on and on, but the African immigrant who is not involved in crime is not the enemy. She is a friend who needs to be embraced and encouraged through compassionate legislation to become a participant in our social and economic landscape in order to simultaneously advance herself and contribute to the prosperity of her new home.

New struggles take the place of old ones

Despite the difficulties encountered in her homeland, the African immigrant in South Africa often exchanges old struggles for a new array of challenges. 

In spite of the hate, abuse, and violence, the African immigrant nonetheless stays because, as Patrick Egwu argues in the case of Nigerians, South Africa “still remains attractive for Nigerians and others — simply because the corruption at home is so overwhelming, and with the economy recently sliding into recession more Nigerians are likely to take any opportunity to check out of the country. As bitter as bigotry in South Africa might be, it’s more endurable in the quest for a better life than the failure of Nigeria’s own governments. Until that changes, the pattern of other Africans seeking hope in South Africa, and many citizens of the rainbow nation rejecting them, will remain.” 

In his novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, an enjoyable account of contemporary Zimbabwe, Tendai Huchu presents a critique of the sociopolitics of Zimbabwe. Take for example the critical time in the story when Vimbai is at the passport office. She notes, because “the desperation to leave the country showed” on the faces of young people waiting in line, that “it was ironic that during the war of independence people had not left in the manner they were doing now, under the same revolutionary government that had previously freed them.” Vimbai concludes: “Could it really be that independence had become a greater burden than the yoke of colonial oppression?” 

The striking absence of such an understanding in the formulation of the anti-African-immigrant sentiment shows a lack of compassion.She must be treated humanely, the African immigrant, especially when she finds herself in another African country. She must be appreciated to be a lifeline, not a danger, so that as South Africans we are emboldened to say, like Aimé Césaire, that “in the whole world no poor devil is lynched, no wretch is tortured, in whom I too am not degraded and murdered.”

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Maruping Phepheng
Maruping Phepheng
Dr Maruping Phepheng is an author and a scholar of African immigration and human mobility. His Twitter handle is @MP_Author

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