Immigrant relations in South Africa, a melting pot bound to boil over

Photo: Xinhua/Hamza Turkia

For the past few months, social media has been filled with discussions about foreign nationals residing in South Africa. The resentment over their presence in the country seems to be growing, or at least, becoming more evident. Some blame the prevalence of crimes such as drug trading, violent crimes and even human trafficking and prostitution on foreign nationals – especially those from fellow African countries.

Certain locals also blame them for the high unemployment rates in the country, stating that their jobs are being stolen by immigrants and accusing employers of preferring foreign workers over South African citizens. In recent weeks these discussions have intensified, with indignant South Africans even taking to the streets to express their discontent, as seen with the “Put South Africa First” march that took place on the 23rd of September. For a protest, there were relatively few attendees, but the march in itself was a clear sign of trouble on the horizon.

So are the accusations true? Are the high rates of crime and unemployment in the country largely due to immigrants? Or are bitter South Africans simply looking for scapegoats for their dissatisfaction? Well, I think that there are a few variables to the equation.
South Africa is home to millions of immigrants.

It’s the relatively lucrative economy, favourable climates and tourism opportunities attract foreign nationals from around the world. These include the general working class, businesses, investors and fellow Africans seeking refuge. My family and I were among those who migrated from their home countries. My parents possessed valuable skills and were able to find sustainable streams of income in the country. Although it came with many challenges, the decision to migrate ultimately proved to be worthwhile. Not everyone is that fortunate, however.

People migrate under various conditions. In a country that has so many immigrants, it’s only natural that there would be some bad apples in the basket. Some immigrants in the country are undocumented and/or lack the skills and qualifications to be gainfully employed. This means that opportunities for them to survive and put food on the table are quite limited, leaving them with some tough choices to make – choices including crime.

Unfortunately, there has not been enough research done to truly understand the depth of the supposed problem of rampant immigrant crime, but many citizens are adamant that it exists. And although such issues need to be handled with kid gloves, it would be ignorant to simply label all accusations of crimes committed by foreign nationals as xenophobic.

Yes, sometimes these accusations stem from a xenophobic mindset, but we need to address these issues nonetheless if we are to move forward as a country. South Africans know what goes on in their communities, so it would be unwise to brush away all of their complaints without investigating the extent of their truthfulness. If we do not face the problem head-on, frustrated citizens will eventually address it themselves – and that has the potential to turn violent. If past experiences are anything to go by, we know that even those who are innocent will end up impacted when this happens.

So what about the jobs? Are foreign nationals to blame for South Africa’s high unemployment rates? Well, from my own family’s experiences and those of fellow migrants, the fact of the matter is that it is relatively difficult to get a decent job as a foreign national. Many employers much prefer to employ South African citizens. When a foreign national is employed in a well-paying position, the chances are that person has that opportunity because he or she has a skill or meets a need that many South Africans workers do not. Also – let’s think about it – how are you reading this very article?

Are you not using a device that was manufactured in a foreign country? Do you not get transported by vehicles that were built using foreign-made parts? Do you not have at least a basic understanding of English – a language that did not originate in South Africa? The examples go on forever. The presence and influence of foreign countries and their citizens are inevitable, and it often brings much-needed value into the country.

Thus, handling such issues with a blanket approach is detrimental to the bigger picture. Addressing the issue of unemployment among South Africans isn’t as simple as “putting South Africans first” or saying that people from a certain country must go. Just as foreigners depend on South Africa, so too does South Africa depend on foreigners.

So what do we do? What solutions do we implement to deal with the issues raised by frustrated South Africans?

Well, when it comes to African immigrants like myself, the perfect solution would be for the countries that we come from to fix their issues so that the influx of desperate immigrants and refugees into the country decreases. But with the high levels of poverty and corruption embedded in the systems of African countries, it is unlikely that this will happen anytime soon.

Tackling the alleged crimes committed by foreigners would be a multifaceted endeavour. We would need to identify and punish the foreign nationals engaging in illegal activity, starting with those who lack sufficient documentation. It would be difficult to do this without knowing the true extent of the problem, so some effort is needed from those who can investigate these issues and assist crime fighters.

Furthermore, systematic improvements such as tighter border control and better administration systems would also be needed to help combat problems with non-compliant migrants. If we managed to implement these kinds of solutions effectively then we could finally start addressing the more egregious crimes alleged to be spearheaded by foreign nationals, such as human trafficking.

In the same breath, though, we would need to make sure that it’s done in a peaceful way that discourages xenophobic attacks. These kinds of issues require all of us to co-operate, all the way from our leaders to general South African citizens and of course, foreign nationals.

South Africa is the most desirable country on the continent – foreign nationals are here to stay. For immigrants and South African citizens to peacefully co-exist, we need to work together to root out the weeds while supporting those who contribute meaningfully to the country. South Africa’s issues with migrants are growing, and we need to address them before it’s too late for peaceful solutions.

By Anesu Jahura, student and writer, contributing to Voices360.