A black South African man in his mid-thirties in my social circle says that discussion centering around the topic of 'foreigners' is a big one among the poor, unemployed and as he puts it, 'people on the ground.' I don't believe that we employed, privileged (to whatever extent) white people can adequately relate to the perceptions surrounding makwerekwere – the derogatory term used by many black South Africans to describe those not from this country. He says that large numbers of non-South Africans are even colonising deeply rural communities as their safe haven. He claims that he and his friends 'can recognise the foreigners' working in Pickn Pay and other retail outlets. Are there? Can they? His vocal pitch rises along with the volume and he becomes highly animated when talking about it. His anger is palpable. His rural home still does not have electricity, sanitation or home-piped water and for this he blames, partially at least, 'foreigners' for over-loading the infrastructure. Is this the face of xenophobia?
Latest information indicates that there might now be some five million non-South African 'illegals', refugees and other (mainly) black people from all over Africa in the country. Many of them courtesy of 1) Corrupt officials at Beit Bridge and elsewhere, who take them into a private room to receive an 'incentive' to ignore their illegal entry to South Africa. In Botswana, border-hoppers go to jail. 2) The woefully inadequate, non-biometric Home Affairs green ID document which can be purchased for as little as R 400. That process has been shown many times on national TV. The five million figure constitutes a tipping point in the minds of many black South Africans. That's 5% or more of the total population. It's more, I am told, than all the South African born whites (Afrikaners and English-speaking) put together.
Play it how you will, grass-roots people (legitimately so, if one has empathy) see this steadily growing group as partially responsible at least, for absence of service delivery, paucity of housing, inadequate medical care, shortage of jobs and the like. One can understand the need for a focal point or target at which to direct one's discontent. Particularly after seventeen years of 'democracy' in which little has changed for the majority of black South Africans. The indisputable impact and legacy of Apartheid not even being factored into the equation. The paradox is that anger should be directed at the South African government for its total failure to resolve the matter on this front – not at the 'illegal immigrants' or 'aliens' themselves.
According to economist Mike Schussler, we've now reached a point (read comments) where there are more people on welfare and other grants in South Africa than there are taxpayers. That's clearly not a sustainable model. Let alone adding the burden of another 5% of the gross population competing for services and infrastructure.
Solution? There can clearly only be a sustained, multi-faceted approach which includes, inter alia:
- Finally sorting out a biometric ID document which, like our passports and drivers' licences, becomes very difficult to reproduce.
- Rotate the staff at immigration entry points and use 'mystery immigrants' to check whether they're on the take or attempting scams.
- A crackdown on farmers and other employers paying exploitatively low wages to non South Africans and thus creating a demand pipeline for foreign unskilled labour.
- Repair and switch on the electric fence intended to make illegal border breaches more difficult. 'Inhumane' though that might seem, can there be a greater inhumanity than not being able to care for your own population's basic needs? Other nations around the world (US-Mexico border as just one example) don't shrink from tough immigration controls. Why do we? If control is not exercised over the situation we are foolhardily trying to build a stable state on a flawed foundation. The issue will not 'go away'. It can and will only get worse. It's going to take political will and cojones to address and resolve it.
- Draft in our grossly under-utilised army for border patrol duty.
- Eliminate 'courier' and gangs helping people to access the country at poorly patrolled border areas, like rivers etc. Hammer the criminal gangs that prey on and fleece the hapless illegals on entry.
- A cap perhaps on the number of people granted 'refugee' or 'temporary visa' status in any one period.
- Development of community stakeholder forums, led by respected leaders or opinion influencers which openly discuss the fears and concerns of South Africans who feel threatened by the illegal immigration status quo. They must include 'illegals' and NGOs.
- The South African government and Department of International Relations and Co-operation (formerly Foreign Affairs) Affairs team need to become more vocal in their criticism of governments and regimes causing an exodus from other African countries that negatively impact on us. Yes, I know deep-freezing hell might be easier, but we can make a start in the interests of future generations.
- Maybe this is something 'the Elders' can tackle as a continent-wide problem.
- Have the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) create a working group to address the issue of refugee migration across the African continent.
- Involve the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). They have global experience in these matters dating back decades.
- If indigenous South Africans want to protest, they should be encouraged and indeed compelled to do so only through channels like the employment unions, civic representative bodies, protest marches or indeed strikes if that's what it will take to get government off its backside to properly address the issue. Taking the law into their own hands is totally unacceptable regardless of the level of frustration or resentment.
- Finally, let's not have people like Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa trying to sweep these issues under the rug or calling them 'rumours' designed to damage our Soccer World Cup hosting success. What nonsense. Xenophobic stresses and strains will be reduced only when they are acknowledged and dealt with. Let's keep the issue top of mind so we don't indeed have a hate-driven explosion that undoes all our present international goodwill in one fell swoop. That way, you won't have to answer an awkward question from your children one day, when they ask, 'But why did you let it happen?'