The view that someone is a threat because of their being a foreigner, and should therefore be pushed out of an organisation, and out of the country, is based on fear. Such fear may be understandable because unemployment is very high in South Africa, and it is also fair that South Africans expect the government and companies to prioritise them. Unemployment is a source of frustration, conflict, poverty, a loss of self-worth and self-confidence, and socioeconomic exclusion. However, this is as true for South Africans as it is for anyone else.
Despite our problems, South Africa is among the most stable nations on the continent in terms of our demography, society, economy, and our cherished democracy. Many other Africans live under dictatorships (such as the socialist and oppressive ZANUPF party under Mugabe until November 2017, and now under Mnangagwa) and other oppressive rulerships which have tyrannised the people and plundered the national economy. National stability is partly measured according to the rate of human flight, refugees, and displaced people.
Less stable nations, where there is much suffering and poverty, have an outflow of their labour force. Economic and political refugees may have no choice other than to flee to a country where they will be safer. South Africa is still such a safe haven in many respects, and immigrants are afforded temporary or permanent residence and protection. Organisations in South Africa are also employing refugees and immigrants, indicating that there is space for them in the economy. Some Africans are happy to work in South Africa for the most meagre wages rather than return to worse conditions in their home country, which may be war torn or bereft of the most basic human rights.
What seems to make this problematic is job scarcity, particularly for the lower wage categories. Some feel they have everything to lose from an influx of non-South Africans, and it is understandable that they will be defensive of their jobs, workplaces and communities. Chasing out foreigners will not solve the unemployment problem, however. This is because there are not as many immigrants as people think there are. People just notice them more because they appear different from South Africans. Furthermore, ‘international migrants in South Africa have much lower unemployment rates than others. This is unusual. In most other countries, international migrants tend to have higher unemployment rates than locals’ (Wilkinson, 2015).
Why then has South Africa needed to call in its army to deal with xenophobic violence in recent years? Anthropologist Dr Zaheera Jinnah from the African Centre for Migration and Society says there is a disconnect between reality and perceptions about immigrants. A mere 4% of the working population is composed of immigrants. ‘A lot of what has been said and reproduced is based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence or myths,’ Dr Jinnah explained (quoted in Alfreds, 2017). The major reason for hostility against non-South Africans is thus found in the name ‘xenophobia’. It the fear or phobia, and not the reality, surrounding foreigners which leads to violence. Underlying anger is fear. Yet such fear may not be justifiable, especially when it degrades into brutality.
Immigration is a necessary and inevitable phenomenon. People have been migrating around throughout history and they will continue to do so in the future. South Africa has not closed its boarders to foreign labour, as well as to foreign students, despite nationwide outcry and violence against these individuals in recent years, because of the big picture factors. If South Africa tries to prevent all legal immigrations, it will isolate the country economically, especially from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), as well as from other nations.
South Africa is a dominant SADC member, providing leadership and guidance, having considerable sway in decision making, and a valuable foothold in the region which we can’t afford to lose. Regional and international trade is a large source of employment, revenue and economic growth. Xenophobic discrimination and violence are not justified because we are members of international communities of cooperation and sharing. We cannot afford to alienate ourselves from the rest of Africa, but this happening, with nation such as Nigeria being enraged by the terrible treatment of their people in South Africa. We must never think we have nothing to gain from other nations such as Nigeria, or that it is no longer our duty to show kindness to strangers.
Bilateral and multilateral country agreements are highly advantageous for South Africans, but xenophobia places these agreements at risk. These have to be relationships of give and take. We can’t send South Africans overseas to be educated, to work, trade, showcase their talents and projects, or to engage in cultural exchanges, and then return here with the fruits thereof, while denying all these to foreigners.
There has been much concern over brain drain in South Africa, and our major means of combating this are brain exchange and brain circulation (see Nyarko, 2011; Fourie, 2006). The significant loss of skilled human capital is a reality. We need to replace these lost workers. While the government is pushing education as hard as possible, we have also lost educators and experts to train and mentor South Africans before they can replace lost the human capital. To make up the deficit, foreign expertise has been brought in, and should, ideally, be warmly welcomed as well.
In the example of Oba at the beginning of this section on race and ethnicity, we can see how important he is in the context of scarce skills. Oba has superior expertise and he can find a job just about anywhere he wants to in the world. That his co-workers won’t listen to him, learn from him and are pushing him out of the organisation is their and our nation’s loss, not his.
It is easy to see how much we need experts like Oba from around the world to come and share with us their knowledge and help us work towards a better society. It is much harder to talk about that elephant in the room: the vast majority of non-South Africans living here are not as highly skilled as Oba and many are illegal immigrants.
During his tenure as Home Affairs Minister, Malusi Gigaba described the situation in an enlightening way: ‘many of them [immigrants] don’t stay permanently in South Africa‚ they come and go out. Some of them stay permanently and commit crimes, but they are no different from South Africans who were born here‚ live here‚ commit crimes and also have malicious intentions to society in general.’ Gigaba said that most immigrants from Africa enter the country using legal, legitimate documents and they conduct transactions with South African businesses, thus supporting jobs in South Africa. The use of legal documents should ensure that immigrants are ‘just as safe as South Africans and also contribute to the diversity and social cohesion of the country’ (Gigaba, quoted in Goba, 2016).
There are many different types of legal and illegal immigrants in South Africa, and it is hardly fair to lump them together. There are many who contribute to the economy, the education system, and social change. There are some who have malicious intentions, but it is up to our police and state authorities to deal with this group. If citizens become involved, by means of what would be termed ‘vigilante’ or ‘mob justice’ in communities and in the workplace, we face numerous problems.
The proper legal channels and processes, part of our precious democracy (which needs to be protected), are undermined and weakened. For example, undue interference in a case of crimes committed by an immigrant muddies the waters, making the investigation harder to conduct and control. If vigilantes take action, it will undermine the balance which officials work hard to maintain in the justice system, and it prevents the authorities from prosecuting criminals to the full extent of the law.
Xenophobic vigilantism is discrimination and, at best, it is a nuisance for law officials in trying to fulfil their duties, as well as an impediment to organisational and national progress. At worst, it is unjustifiable violence, victimisation and harassment of any non-South African with complete disregard for their real character or activities. It casts South Africans in a very poor light: as narrow-minded, selfish, prejudiced against our fellow Africans, and lacking an understanding of what it means to be citizens of the global village.
Devan Moonsamy runs the ICHAF Training Institute, and he is the author of Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs That Divide Us, available from the ICHAF Training Institute.