What does #PutSouthAfricansFirst really mean?

A history professor at Harvard University for over 50 years, Oscar Handlin, wrote ‘Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history’. In the wake of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating economic effects reminiscent of the 1930s Great Depression, as South Africa (RSA) responds to the health and economic fallout of coronavirus, it needs to equally plan for the inevitable migration movement to its borders and managing the non-nationals already residing in the country in terms of socioeconomics justice, court judgement precedents and international commitments.

This is no longer a philosophical discussion about Pan Africanism but an urgent one that needs to take into account our international obligations we are a signatory to namely; the 1951 Refugee Convention, its 1967 Protocol and the 1969 OAU, the African Union (AU) predecessor, Convention on the Specific Aspects of Refugees in Africa, 2015 United Nations resolution which established the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and more recently the AU Agenda 2063. International agreements are effected through domestic law. In the case of immigration matters, we have the Immigration Act and Refugees Act, both which have undergone amendments and are accompanied by regulations. This is an important issue that needs to be proactively addressed by the state because as William Gumede (2020) accurately reminds times of severe economic downturn bring terrible societal ills with nationalism and xenophobia, a response that resonates with those who feel “othered” by the mainstream economy and politics.

According to the Institute of Security Studies in 2019, 470 million of all Africans lived in extreme poverty and the figure premised on best-case-scenario uptake places the number at 603 million in 2030.  Clearly, RSA is going to see record numbers of asylum seekers as was the case in 2007/8 global economic meltdown. In 2007 alone RSA received almost 47 000 new asylum seeker applications with thousands of 53 000+ cases  of 2006 still to be adjudicated. By 2009, RSA was in the top ten in the world of individual recipient system of asylum applications. Since then the processing backlog has grown immensely, placing the socioeconomic strain of other service departments and hence the agitation within local communities. An unordered and unprepared for mass influx during perhaps what could be feasibly considered our worst period since the 1994 first democratic elections, could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back of tolerance in a country with already a poor history of xenophobia.

Xenophobia is the extreme dislike of foreigners. South African politicians and citizens will seem offended at the term. Ask South Africans who currently trend the  #PutSouthAfricansFirst term on social media in the midst of the pandemic and their likely answer will be that it is not about hating foreigners but that they take jobs, medical, educational and social benefits from already struggling South Africans and quite a few will add that they are at the helm criminal syndicates. Former Mayor of the City of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, is known for his public advocacy for stricter immigration laws and enforcement thereof and thus has become the face of the growing put citizens first movement, which is both populist and nationalistic. Other politicians also see this as a rallying point for the upcoming 2021 local elections such as the African Transformation Movement.

The 2020 reality should be seen in the background of 2008 where xenophobic violence killed 62 people. Similar incidents of violence and displacement of foreigners including damage to their economic livelihoods occurred in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. In August 2019, the Johannesburg Metro Police carried out a series of raids in the city centre to confiscate alleged counterfeit goods being sold by informal and shop traders. Non-South African born individuals perceived that they were being targeted by a city known for its anti-foreigner sentiment. In an unexpected turn of events, they responded by attacking police officers and damaging public property. The political and civil society battles lines were drawn, and these taken into 2020 and the pandemic. As for ordinary South Africans, they anecdotally perceived to agree with Mashaba’s reiterating that ‘people must come into our country legally and once here obey our laws’.

In 2019 Statistics South Africa told a Parliamentary Committee that its last concrete figures on immigrants were from 2011 where they recorded 2.2 million immigrants. Other organizations by 2020 claim the number as high as 5 million. The Department of Home Affairs (DHA), who is the main department responsible for immigration management often has different data to international organizations like United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as well as non-governmental organizations and even political parties. The bottom line is that our main source of statistics is almost a decade old and this is precarious for high-level decision making and on the ground actions by citizens who lack the “bigger” conceptual framework and civic education.

 It is therefore easy to lay claim to fact on many sides of the immigration discourse because it is a subject not many are well versed in the international agreements, local legislation and regulations. Then there is the Apartheid history of backdoor migration for the mines and agriculture still a signature of today’s continental movements. The lack of recent and cross-sector trusted set of statistics that are comprehensive as they are detailed creates more space for divisive opinions. Perhaps most importantly, the lack of a common understanding of the different category of immigrants – their rights and responsibilities as well as their and our country’s migration history shortchanges positive debates on immigration – gaps which politicians use to deflect from pressing socioeconomic failures or to rile up support that they were unlikely to have received based on ordinary approach.

I note that in my experience it is both citizens and migrants who are unsure of the law and their role. It’s particularly problematic that training is not occurring on a regular, updated basis on the Immigration and 2020 amended Refugees Acts and regulations, not simply in DHA but across implementing departments such as Education, Health, Police etc. and local government. The recent passing of the Border Management Agency Act may be the activator required for a more whole of government approach. In turn the adoption of the White Paper on International Migration finalized in 2017 already could take it two steps forward to have a whole of society approach and critically balance the dictates of immigration of human and state security.

Ultimately the pandemic has forced our timelines for South Africans to iteratively reflect and own our immigration narrative. The clock has closed on eloquent political rhetoric made on international stages and unmet constitutional imperatives. An African proverb states ‘When there are no enemies within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you’. Who are South Africa’s enemies – us or our fellow African immigrants? Are they here? Are they coming? Or are we our worst enemy when it comes to immigration?

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