Xenophobia: Reprehensible but irresistible?

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the touchy question of illegal immigrants in SA


Migrants: Relying on the kindness of strangers

Human migration. It’s one of the biggest issues of the 21st century and across the globe is driving a slew of governing parties to hasty policy about-turns. 

The movement of masses of people across national borders — whether because of conflict or simply in search of a better life — has become politically unsustainable to many of the destination countries. The cost of compassion, especially when shared unevenly between states and regions, has caused a huge electoral backlash that has seen powerful establishment parties crumble in the face of populist anti-immigration upstarts.

Mass migration has fuelled the rise of far-right nationalist parties across Europe. In the United States, it was a major factor in Donald Trump’s presidential victory.

But it is not only a rightwing phenomenon. In Britain, the anti-immigration sentiments that delivered the referendum vote for Brexit are as prevalent among Labour’s working-class voters in the north of England as they are among the Little Englander Tories in the south.

This tug-of-war in between humanitarianism and political expediency exists also in South Africa. it’s a matter on which the opposition Democratic Alliance and the governing African National Congress are not that far apart in policy.

Both talk of encouraging skilled, legal immigration while tightening controls to stop illegal flows. These are irreproachable sentiments. No country can dispense with entry and residence controls. Few would choose to live in Venezuela or the Democratic Republic of the Congo instead of the United States or South Africa. 

But both parties have also been criticised for straying into xenophobia and isolationism. 

Recently, Herman Mashaba, the DA mayor of Johannesburg, was pressured to publicly apologise for a tweet in which he boasted of arresting a man who was transporting cow heads on an open trolley. Mashaba, who has often identified illegal immigrants as a major problem for the city, wrote “We are [not] going to sit back and allow people like you to bring us Ebola in the name of small business … Our health facilities are already stretched to the limit.”

The Institute of Race Relations’ Gareth van Onselen said Mashaba was fuelling prejudice and hatred of “immigrants or informal traders, [who are] often regarded as one and the same”. The Human Rights Commission instituted a formal inquiry, and virtually every political grouping, from the Economic Freedom Fighters to the Congress of SA Trade Unions, clambered aboard the shaming bandwagon.

Interestingly, in the very same week, there was considerably less reaction to Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, who expressed far harsher sentiments that in essence supported Mashaba’s stance. Speaking at a union summit of healthcare workers, Motsoaledi said that recognising the “burden of foreign nationals” upon the healthcare system had nothing to do with xenophobia, but “was a reality”.

“Our hospitals are full, we can’t control them. When more and more come, you can’t say the hospital is full now go away… they have to be admitted, we have got no option. And when they get admitted in large numbers, they cause overcrowding, infection control starts failing.”

This earned Motsoaledi only a social media rebuke from the Deputy Public Protector, Kevin Malunga, who being born in Zimbabwe is no doubt quick to suspect xenophobia. Malunga chided the minister for trying to deflect blame for the Health Department’s own managerial failures. 

The IRR and HRC, Cosatu and the EFF, were all silent. Perhaps this was because they are unable convincingly to refute Motsoaledi’s assertions? After all, only an idiot would undergo surgery at Bulawayo Central Hospital in preference to Pretoria Academic Hospital.

Leaders scapegoating minorities — be they foreign, gay, white, Muslim, or all of the above — is inarguably reprehensible. But when it chimes with the deep-seated prejudices of those on whose support you are dependent, it's pretty much irresistible.

Unfortunately, also, such behaviour is not particularly susceptible to reason. It doesn’t much help defuse xenophobia to point out that there are probably no more than 3m illegal immigrants in SA and statistically it is highly unlikely that they, collectively, are responsible for you, specifically, being unemployed. Neither does any number of academic studies that conclude immigrants add more to the economic pie than they consume.

Prejudice goes hand in hand with exclusion. The less-skilled and less well-off in Budapest and Johannesburg are susceptible to populism, be it from the right or the left, for the same reason: they believe that they are being deprived of the privileges of birth by pushy, undeserving outsiders.

The ANC is very attuned to this, hence the growing anti-immigrant tenor, of which Motsoaledi's words are just the most recent manifestation. Last year, the previous Police minister, Fikile Mbalula, blamed Zimbabwean ex-soldiers for SA's crime woes and the present deputy-minister of Police, Bongani Mkongi, is similarly on record accusing illegal foreigners of over-running SA's cities.

As it has shown by embracing the EFF's position on land expropriation without compensation, the ANC has no intention of allowing another party to outflank it on populist issues. If it senses that illegal immigration is an electoral handicap — no matter that it was the ANC that dismantled SA's virtually impermeable apartheid-era land borders — it will act ruthlessly. 

In the near future, migrants, whether they are Somalis seeking succour or Zimbabweans offering much-needed skills, are likely to encounter a far chillier welcome. The ANC, which in exile was forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, will have come a full circle.

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