At least every other year, there are campaigns or protests concerning gender-based violence, unemployment, poor service delivery and, of course, xenophobic attacks. History shows that South Africa has scored poorly because of high levels of criminality, easy access to weapons, relatively high levels of political terror as well as high levels of violent demonstrations.
In July last year, we witnessed how underprivileged South Africans used the opportunity of former president Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment as motivation to loot stores and retaliate against the government for the persistent levels of poverty, poor service delivery, unbearable living conditions and the overall poor state of the economy.
This well-orchestrated economic sabotage led to deaths of about 350 people and R50-billion in damage. It is not surprising that matters of concern such as poverty, unemployment and relative deprivation “provide fuel for political entrepreneurs to light the spark of protests and insurrection”.
One of the key findings in the study on intra-ANC rivalry to explain the 2021 July unrest showed that those most prepared for dissent and violence are ruling party members contesting positions and seeking better opportunities in the party and in the government as a whole . During such occurrences, South Africans feel that their government is failing them and are always prepared to take matters into their own hands.
First it was the unrest caused by Zuma’s imprisonment and now Operation Dudula, whose members have decided to replace the police and the home affairs department to get rid of all undocumented foreigners who they perceive as a threat to employment.
It is also argued by the government that the “police work more closely with government departments at district levels to ensure a plan is laid out to address the socioeconomic problems that make the population vulnerable to criminal conduct”. If that really is the case, can it then be said that the government is unprepared in handling social problems? And, the health of the economy has been at stake since the declaration of the Covid-19 pandemic, another question is, what are the effects of the ongoing social unrest on the society-state-economy relations?
The government should provide fair treatment to its citizens and protect the minority of law-abiding, documented foreigners.
The government has a huge responsibility to ensure peace and justice by putting South Africans first. But if South Africans reject jobs and these are accepted by hardworking and vulnerable documented foreigners, they should not be seen as a threat. The drug dealers and human traffickers should definitely go but the poor documented low-wage workers (such as domestic workers, cleaners, security guards, waiters, et cetera) who contribute to the country’s economy should not be victimised in the process.
One can argue that South Africans can do those jobs, but how many of them are actually willing to do the work? Most of the documented foreign workers are not protected by labour law and are exploited by their employers but still accept their poor working conditions because they have no option. Most South Africans would never settle for such menial jobs and small business employers do not like the challenge and “choose” to hire foreigners who do not know South African labour law and can easily be exploited without becoming a threat to the company.
I also do not believe that some jobs are strictly meant for foreigners. What should security, cleaning and domestic work companies do when recruiting workers: wait for South Africans that are willing to accept this kind of work to get the position even when they lack the skills and experience? Or employ those that are fit or the position, be it citizens or skilled and documented foreigners? What would be considered fair in this matter?
From a foreigner’s point of view, I understand the frustration of some South Africans who campaign against illegal foreigners. If an undocumented foreigner owns a business, there is no way they are paying taxes, which weakens the economy because tax money is used to fund crucial services such as healthcare, safety, housing, roads, railways, education and social grants that documented foreign nationals should also benefit from by law.
From the beginning of Operation Dudula, it was clear that its supporters wanted illegal foreigners kicked out of the country. But South Africans are against Operation Dudula because they believe their actions against foreigners is xenophobic. This controversial operation has divided South Africans because people who feel marginalised by the government are taking matters into their own hands and are contributing to rising xenophobic tensions.
The Operation Dudula supporters claim that: “I am African before I am South African and I always put humanity first. However, illegal immigration is criminality and a threat to national security” and argue that the government should deal with the problem.
Whether the government is able to do so without victimising documented and legal migrants remains to be seen.
Divine Katay is a master’s candidate in industrial sociology at the University of Johannesburg.