Politicians should refrain from making statements that incite xenophobic violence and should rely on the appropriate legal mechanisms to address immigration and refugee-related problems, writes Dr Callixte Kavuro (Public Law) in an opinion piece for Daily Maverick (22 July).
Xenophobic violence in South Africa has been perpetrated recently by truck drivers who are demanding 100% employment of locals in the industry. We have also seen a series of attacks on immigrants living in informal settlements in Vredenburg in the Western Cape – their lives were threatened and they were instructed to leave the town.
If it is to make any impact on xenophobia in the country, the South African government needs to consider the factors that trigger such violence against immigrants originating from African countries.
Three categories of immigrants, namely economic migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, are frequently viewed (in the mainstream media and on social media platforms) as undesirable people as they are believed to impose a heavy burden on the state purse because they need state support to improve their quality of life. Many of them do not meaningfully contribute to economic growth.
The perception of their undesirability stems from the fact that the admission of immigrants to the country is, by law, based on self-sufficiency and economic independency. This implies that all those who cannot support themselves and their families are legally undesirable as immigrants and can only be considered for admission to the country if they are asylum-seekers escaping persecution or oppression in their home countries.
It's is important for South Africans to know that immigrants can legitimately be admitted in the country to work or set up a business. In these situations, they are granted either general work, critical skills, or business visas or permits. Moreover, general work visas are issued only to immigrants where South Africans with the relevant skills are not available for appointment.
Worth noting is that this limitation does not apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, who enjoy an automatic right to work in terms of the regulations on refugees because they are in the greatest need of work to support themselves.
Some immigrants who are not asylum-seekers and who also do not meet the immigration law requirement of self-sufficiency abuse the country's asylum management system to regularise their stay. Economic migrants who do not meet the requirement for a work or business visa, may turn to claims for asylum as they anticipate that the process to determine the genuineness of their application will be held up for a long time due to backlogs in the system. While they are waiting for the decision on their requests for asylum, they are permitted to engage in economic activities.
This particular immigration problem is of serious to concern to politicians who struggle to address it, but this does not warrant making statements that incite and fuel xenophobic violence such as we've seen on several occasions.
Several of our politicians refer to immigrants, especially those living in townships or working in the informal sector, as “illegal foreigners". They also use the influx of economic migrants as an excuse to justify the country's failure to deliver on the promise of a “better life for all", especially to those still trapped in abject poverty, unemployment and intolerable living conditions.
Immigrants are loosely blamed for society's ills and accused of committing violent crimes and stealing jobs from locals despite the lack of evidence to support such perceptions.
Such attitudes fuel xenophobia and send a message to South Africans that all immigrants have no right to stay, work or do business in the country.
We've seen how this has led to the looting of immigrants' shops and the maiming or injuring and even killing of innocent people. Little or nothing is done to compensate those whose shops have been looted or to pay for damages for pain and suffering in situations where immigrants were physically and seriously injured or lose their loved ones. Little is done to investigate these crimes and bring the perpetrators to book. There is also no political will to hold accountable those involved in perpetrating discrimination, hate speech, and xenophobic violence. This highlights government's failure to accept and admit the existence of xenophobia.
It doesn't help that the voices of immigrants are always missing from political discussions and debates where the concerns of citizens are communicated to the government; where the government accounts for or is held accountable on immigration; or where citizens participate in the decision-making processes concerning the improvement of the wellbeing of immigrants. Accordingly, immigrants lack any political muscle as decisions affecting them are taken in their absence.
We saw this play out in 2017 when the government tightened its refugee laws with a view to restricting the right of asylum-seekers to work and study. According to the 2017 Refugee Amendment Act, asylum-seekers do not deserve to live in communities, but should remain in processing centres which NGOs have compared to detention centres. It is argued that this arrangement would remove their need to work or study.
Restrictions on the rights to work and study were further tightened in the draft refugee regulations for the act published in 2018.
We've also seen how a lack of political muscle played out in the Covid-19 regulations when refugees and asylum-seekers were not only excluded from accessing most socio-economic relief packages, but were also restricted from engaging in the economy after lockdown. This sent a further message to communities that refugees and asylum-seekers do not belong and, no doubt, contributed to the rise in current xenophobic attacks.
It is not disputed that South Africa has the right to self-preservation, but this imposes on it the duty to admit or expel immigrants or asylum-seekers only in such cases and upon such conditions as it has determined in terms of immigration and refugee law.
The on-going xenophobic attacks can be prevented. But for this to happen, people will have to change their perceptions of economic migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers who are trying to create a better future for them and their children in South Africa.
Politicians, in particular, should play their part by refraining from making statements that incite xenophobic violence and by relying on the appropriate legal mechanisms that exist to address immigration and refugee-related problems. The government has sufficient policing entities that can enforce its regulations in a non-violent manner.
- Photo: People in Johannesburg march against xenophobia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
*Dr Callixte Kavuro is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Public Law at Stellenbosch University.