Starting with the End of Narnia and Ending with the USA that I’m invested in too 

Naugle (2002) used a fictious story written by C.S. Lewis of a magical land called Narnia to underscore that your choices are determined by your worldview. This can be evidenced worldwide in the magic, in the mess of the United States of America (USA). For decades, it has been the benchmark for democratic states – patriotism, successful economics, personal freedom and opportunities to achieve your dreams were in your own hands. 2020 may have finally burst the bubble but in the celebration of a Democratic President elect; we need to ask the uncomfortable questions: why are we celebrating this victory and how does it impact on our own aspirations?

Today on 1st December 2020, almost a month after Biden received the most candidate votes in history; Trump still calls the elections fake but offers no evidence for the countless legal cases across multiple states he loses with scathing judgments. He reluctantly is allowing a staff handover but says that his departure from the White House will depend on the manner of proceedings on the 16th of December when the Electoral College meet to confirm the results. There is no doubt the Democratic Party Biden-Harris ticket won. The issues are whilst Trump is playing his fiddle preparing his 2024 election bid already; America is figuratively and literally burning. As of today, the number of COVID-19 infections are soaring from the election date, a month ago. Now 13.6M are confirmed cases with eulogies for 269K. Bloomberg predicts that whilst slow economic recovery will come, the timing depends on how COVID-19 is efficiently and effectively managed already now. The Bureau of Labor Standards confirmed that between 2010 and 2019, unemployment sharply decreased year-on-year from 9.7% to 3.7%. recorded the unemployment rate on 6 November in the midst of the polls at 6.9% with a smart-term forecast of increasing to 7.7%, under the effects of the 2008/9 international economic crash but significant to place enough pressure that might call for further stimulus packages. The inauguration on 20 January 2021 might be of the most candidate ever voted for; but he is the also the incumbent-elect facing crisis at every road that leads to Washington with a bridge he must build for Democrat and Republicans leaders and supporters to together work in answering the call to stabilize shared patriotism and sense of duty to America. The Americana that is a part of me that holds my US popular culture Marvel yellow mind stone, fought for like Biden-Harris will need to do from day one. 

The Legacy of President Trump’s Years 

In 2015 Donald Trump burst onto the political scene and pulled the rug from career politicians to take the Republican presidential nomination. His blunt approach resonated with many Americans who were fed up with the Washington system they saw as stagnant and elitist. Republicans and even conservative Democrat voters were concerned by what they saw as increasing liberalization of issues they considered core American values. 

Trump played successfully to this gallery with his ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA), who enabled him to win the 2016 election in their complex federal state weighting voting system, despite losing the popular vote to Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton. If America and the world was expecting a Republican presidency, the likes of George W. Bush (2000 -2008); in a matter of months, Trump proved this was never going to be the case in his inauguration speech, where he reiterated that unlike the establishment, he was going to ‘Put America First’. 

Unlike any President before, he took full control of his MAGA-machinery brand and tweeted directly. He called media who were critical ‘mainstream fake news’. He often made unsubstantiated, contradictory claims and scathing derogatory statements against opponents in and outside of the USA including fellow Heads of State.  This blunt rejection of protocol emboldened his supporters to follow suit. A year later and the societal schisms long in existence started to shake. His opponents joined forces in a Women’s March across the country estimated to be one of the largest in their history, but it didn’t dent Trump. Not that, not his appointing his family members with no Washington credentials, not the trade wars he instigated with China, not him calling countries in the Global South ‘shithole’ and certainly not the rise of right-wing nationalism who started to organize, recruit and rally countrywide in the open in a manner last seen in the 1960s.

To be fair to Trump from the get-go unlike many Presidents who forget their election manifesto on their inauguration, he set about quickly attempting to bypass Congress with Executive Orders. Keeping to his anti-climate change mantra, he notified intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Likewise, he initiated several coordinated anti-immigration policies. He pushed for the building of a wall on the Mexican border, the realization of which is disputed. He instructed responsible agencies to prioritize the rounding up and deportation of illegal migrants, which led to the unaccompanied minor camps that caused a domestic and international outcry.  He made it extremely difficult for citizens from Muslim-majority countries to obtain visas aligning with increased anti-Muslim sentiment. He moved away from negotiated diplomacy to confrontational threats of war with Syria, Iraq and North Korea, putting pressure on the delicate geopolitics with China and Russia and multilateralism.  2017 saw the ultra-rightwing, which includes the Klu Klux Klan and neo-Nazis stage a demonstration in which one opponent died. Trump hesitated to condemn the demonstrators and later stated there was ‘some very fine people’ amongst them. 

2020 United States of America Election 

At the beginning of 2020, Trump started the election year strong. Unlike the Democrats who had a pool of candidates who still had to go through the Primaries to be officially nominated, he was an incumbent President going into the year with a stable economy and low unemployment at 3.5% though analysts point out that there was little difference to the healthy state of the economy between the Obama and Trump administrations

Then COVID-19 hit the world from January but blowing up globally by March 2020. Initially Trump denied its existence, blamed China for manufacturing it trending the hashtag #ChinaLiedPeopleDied and halted USA funding to the World Health Organization who was coordinating the international response to the pandemic. As governments across the world implemented strict quarantines enforcing health protocols such as compulsory social distancing and wearing of masks in public; Trump took time to react to what he interchangeably referred to as the China disease, just a flu and a Democratic ploy in an election year. Twitter took the unprecedented step of labeling many of Trump’s tweets on the coronavirus as factually misleading. By election day on 4 November 2020, the daily infection average hovered towards 90,000, an overall infection of 9 million people with an estimated 242,000 deaths

The 25th May 2020 public murder of an African-American, George Floyd, by a policeman in country with a history of police brutality and an unfair justice system towards people of colour was the day that made the 2020 elections about the #AmericaWeWant. The extensive protests that followed awoke an apathetic electorate that allowed Democrats to rally around the Biden-Harris team. 

The tale of two Americas was illuminating in the election results. Biden won the election making him the 46thPresident elect and in the process Harris, born to Indian and Jamaican immigrants, the first female Vice-President elect in the history of the USA. As those in South Africa and the world breathed a sigh of relief, one must not forget that whilst Biden won the complicated electoral college vote overwhelming by 306 to 232, Trump still received 47,7% of the popular vote signally that many Americans support his populist politics.

The Policies and Record of Biden as a Senator and Vice-President under President Obama 

Biden’s 36 years as a senator and 8 years as a Vice-President record, may surmise what to expect over the next few years from the country who remains the richest in the world based on GDP. Biden’s voting record shows he has generally been a man of his time and stayed within the ambit of the Democratic mainstream, even where they supported what would now be untenable stances; the likes of anti-gay marriages, supporting bus segregation and the Iraq War. In other words, he is not known to rock the establishment boat, a keeper to the centre, an eager politician to negotiate compromises and certainly not as proactively progressive as his closest primary rival, Bernie Sanders or the growing centre-left caucus in his own party. For many, he was the compromise candidate. The one thought most likely by Democrats to beat Trump and the one moderate Republicans and Independents were most likely to support. 

So what? Is this the end of an era and start of a new chapter of Americana?  

So what? It’s time for America to face its institutionalized psyche including the unresolved and unhealed wounds of slavery, silos of immigration, its recent history of segregation and war. These are difficult public conversations, made more so for Biden by an economy in recovery, long unemployment queues not seen in recent history, a ravaging pandemic and a Republican controlled Congress with a Senate controlled by his own party only marginally. 

Ultimately, America is a capitalist country and when the economy does well, it turns attention away from other burning socioeconomic issues. There will have to be trade-offs and likely he will not deliver the environmental and healthcare reforms promised to the left in order to have bargaining chips with the right. He will make quick-wins overturning Trump’s executive orders especially those regarding immigration, which will buy Democratic and international goodwill. In terms of race relations, Biden will seriously attempt to live up to his commitments and representivity will factor in appointments and decision-making at an unprecedented level, but he will find it hard in his first and probably only term to take more than a bite out of mammoth institutionalized racism and inequality that permeates American society, purely due to the attention that economic recovery and the best practice management COVID-19 will take and the bipartisanship it requires.  Diplomatic relations will improve in protocol and there will be a return to a more multilateral approach of the Obama years; but his administration will not reverse major foreign policy decisions such as those on Israel, but rather as Harris alluded to in her introduction to their state security post nominees, work towards making the US a world leader again. 

The end but my restart with Americana that holds my yellow mind stone and part of my orange soul stone

My positionality is undoubtedly based in my intricate relationship with the USA and it’s government, who under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, embraced me with numerous opportunities to study, undertake government exchange programmes and selected me for a Nelson Mandela-George Washington Fellowship. My work life has connected me closely with the USA be it on diplomacy, working frontlines to help rebuild the Democratic Republic of Congo and closest of all on one of their most controversial areas – immigration. My family are there. I have many friends there. My husband spent his youth, studied and worked there. 

My political views are closer to Sanders though I was disappointed that the best candidates both parties could offer were white males in their 70s. My years of interaction have showed me both the best and the worst of America. A country where in many places you can still leave your key under your front door mat, the spirit of neighbourly grace is still practiced, they are undoubtedly one of the most patriotic nations and though not equitable, the individual dream can still be achieved. Their mirror also reflects the richest country with high numbers of homelessness, food insecurity, boroughs of poverty hidden from tourist views and where people die from a simple allergy or diabetes as medication is too expensive, especially for those many working two jobs just to cover exorbitant rent nationwide. 

A tale of two countries, yes. One that Biden can fix in the next 4 years, no; but I believe that though Trump has left his mark, there is going to be genuine efforts to start bridging the divides. Personally, and professionally, I hope the resilience of the American people shines through. Until the geopolitics of the world shifts and in a time where populist neo-conservatism is on the rise, a centre America, a peacemaker American President is the best new, not so new normal, for me and those like South Africa still tethered to the ties of Western dominance. 

South Africa, Immigration and Politics in the COVID-19 Pandemic

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?