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?

Heritage Month: History, Culture and Social Cohesion

How does knowing South Africa’s history contribute to celebrating our diverse culture and reinvigorate our vision of social cohesion?

South Africa celebrates Heritage Month annually in September, culminating on the 24th. The month, in the aftermath of Apartheid, is intended to provide an opportunity to create awareness of the diversity of the people in South Africa in terms of amongst other attributes – race, religion, tribes and ethnicities. Awareness firstly, but secondly and perhaps the most important since the advent of democracy in 1994: social cohesion.

Heritage month cannot be commemorated or celebrated in the absence of understanding the tumultuous history of the country. In what we may term our “modern” beginning, the San and Khoekhoen provide rich historical evidence for their hunter-gatherer and pastoralist lives as far back as 2000 years.

The first European settlement was commercial, through the Dutch East India Company or VOC which was the world’s first corporate conglomerate, initially intended for trade with India, but it soon became apparent that there were more opportunities for expansion and in 1652, South Africa was settled starting in the Cape. The settlement was intended as a docking station for ships but soon morphed into a colony. It’s worth noting that the Portuguese did land in South Africa in 1497 as part of Vasco da Gama’s voyage of “discovery”, but unlike the tales of myth; he and his company did not discover South Africa or settle in it at that time. The British Empire, who by now, had used its vast and strong naval fleet to become a major colonial power, moved to settle South Africa, to ensure the Dutch did not lay claim to the wide potential of resources, arriving initially in what is now known as Nelson Mandela Bay, in 1820.

Throughout the 1800s, European colonialists moved to occupy the country and divide  into four provinces: the Cape and Natal controlled by the British with Free State and Transvaal under the administration of the Dutch. The British moved quickly to extend its area into the northern part of the Cape as diamonds were discovered there from 1867. Later, the gold and gems discovered in the Free State and Transvaal led to bitter competition over mineral resources, resulting in the brutal Anglo-Boer War from 1899 to 1902.

Often glossed over is the slave history of the Cape Colony for over 200 years until 1834 when slavery was banned. Slaves were commodities that were sold and had their occupation and lives determined. The majority of slaves bought and sold within South Africa were from Angola, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia and Mauritius. From this infusion between the San, Khoekhoen, African tribes who had settled south, the colonialists and the slaves, emanated the language of Afrikaans, which particularly amalgamated Dutch with Malay. Added, religions such as Islam and Hinduism were brought to our shores alongside a variety of Christian missionary denominations. Augmenting, the slave culture mingled with the European colonials to create a race now known as Coloureds who were mixes of the races. They developed a culture of their own in how they used Afrikaans, traditional food, music, dance and cultural observances. Likewise, the British, Dutch, Huguenots who sought sanctuary from France, Indians, Khoekhoen and San each came and in time adapted their language, food and cultural practices, reinforcing their religious beliefs in the process.

This is the colonial history and it’s often unfortunate that  Black tribes, other than the San and Khoekhoen, find too large gaps in our history between this period to the 1900s.  Colonial apologists are fond of using the “empty land myth”, which attempts to argue that other than what they term the Khoi-San, the European colonialists and Black tribes arrived in South Africa at a relatively similar time and had equal claim to “undiscovered” land.  The closer truth is that Bantu tribes started moving and settling south around 500AD. Within this broad categorization were our Zulu ancestors. The Xhosas in turn formed part of the Nguni tribes, who also moved south and were thriving settled prior to the Dutch arrival in 1652. Likewise, by 1500, the Sotho and Tshwane had established solid chiefdoms. It is therefore a false narrative that Black Africans were not settled and had claimed South Africa as their home alongside the San and Khoekhoen, significantly before the Dutch, British, French Huguenot and also Portuguese i.e. European settlement.

Fast forward to 1900 and the White European population began to stamp its authority in terms of language, religion and creating a spatial planning that used a Black manual labour force, including freed slaves to extrapolate resources to be used and refined by the colonial powers to build the wealth and military might of their empires. From this period legislation was put in place to reinforce the practice. The African National Congress was established in 1912 to attempt to push back this minority rule. South Africa was granted independence from the British Empire and became a republic in 1961. Apartheid was legislated and the United Nations had declared it a crime against humanity in 1966. The indignity and impoverishment accompanied by harsh inequality of Blacks continued until a negotiated settlement that led to the first democratic elections in 1994, which the ANC won and within 2 years in 1996 a constitutional democracy was formalized with the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

We could evaluate 26 years of ANC majority rule in South Africa, but that isn’t the point. The point is to use September to delve deeper into our history from 2000 years ago and fill in the blank spaces or add the details that may even surprise you. If we acknowledge that history is based on fact, not around the fire stories and we broaden our knowledge beyond our echo chamber, we move from commemorating Heritage Month to celebrating it.

Gift your neighbour or colleague a bowl of your traditional food.  Add a little note of its history. Eat the samosa, bunny chow or Gatsby. Think about how braai meat with pap and sous binds so many of us together. Look into learning, sharing information and understanding (before judging) on practices like circumcision, wearing a bindhi, Mosque call to prayer, why orthodox Jews won’t work on a Saturday, lobola, polygamy, why no visitors are allowed after the birth of a child in some cultures and how religions vary significantly in death and burial practices.

This September 2020, though the COVID_19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has taken a heavy toll on many, we have an opportunity to take time to learn at least one small period in our history and from that, reach out a hand to say ‘tell & show me more and don’t forget the foods’. Life is for the living and we live in an incredibly diverse country with a complex history but also through openness of mind, heart and active citizenry, the ability to create a state of social cohesion, a state where socioeconomic equality is a norm, not a clash of culture or classes.