International migrants are often accused of stealing jobs from locals in South Africa. But new data presents a picture of what it means to be a migrant trying to make a living in the country. (Frederik Lerneryd)
“My friend” in many townships and neighbourhoods refers to the Nigerian barber, the Ghanaian lady who does your braids, the guy at the corner selling R1 Nik Naks, the Pakistan guy who sells bread at the Spaza shop. When you detect a different accent, you call them “my friend”, we hardly know their names but they actually become friends.
Politicians claim that foreigners are flooding South Africa and undermining country’s security, stability and prosperity. Yet, according to the 2011 census, South Africa isn’t overwhelmed with immigrants, with some 2.2-million international migrants (about 4% of the population) in the country in 2011. Statistics South Africa Community Survey 2016 puts the number of foreign born people at 1.6 million, out of the population of 55 million at the time. While there are a number of methodological issues with the Stats SA Community Survey, it would not be surprising if this figure is correct, especially as the Department of Home Affairs has deported close to 400 000 foreign nationals since 2012.
“Rainbow nation” is a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa, after South Africa‘s first fully democratic election in 1994.
The phrase was elaborated upon by President Nelson Mandela in his first month of office, when he proclaimed: “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
Interesting quote don’t you think? South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. The term “Rainbow Nation” was intended to encapsulate the unity of multi-culturalism and the coming-together of people of many different nations, in a country once identified with the strict division of white and black. Yes there is a vast difference between the South Africa before 1994 and the South Africa we live in today but the one thing that remains the same is we had foreign nationals then and we still have foreign nationals today. The history of slavery and early colonisation in South Africa will make you realise that we’ve had foreign nationals since 1652… under different circumstances of coarse but, it’s as if we’re ok with foreign nationals as long as they give us jobs and food to eat, even if it costs us our freedom, but decades later when we have our freedom, we feel threatened by their ambition to put food in their families mouths, even with the freedom to do that for our own.
Now let’s paint a hypothetical picture of South Africa without foreign nationals, and I mean all of them, Europeans, Chinese, Pakistan, those living in Hillbrow, Sunnyside, and those in Sandton and Cape Town… ALL OF THEM. But first let’s take a look at some stats; South Africa is not alone in having high numbers of illegal foreigners. The United States, with its 327 million inhabitants, was estimated to have 11.3-million undocumented immigrants in the country in 2016. Germany, the world’s second most popular migration destination (after the United States) was home to approximately 370,000 illegal immigrants in 2016, out of a population of 83 million. In the same year, there were just under one million unauthorised foreigners living in the European Union’s 28 member states. Every country carries its cross of illegal immigration.
The latest United Nations estimates put South Africa’s population at 58 million. The number of foreigners living illegally in this country may be as high as 10% to 15% of the population. But the very notion of illegal foreigners not only concerns people who are without visas or permits issued in terms of our immigration legislation. The issue is complicated, as there are several different categories of illegality. Some are in possession of fraudulently obtained or fabricated visas, permits or identity documents. Others have legitimate visas but have contravened their terms, such as people who are in possession of work visas permitting them to work for a particular company, but who are employed by another. Another group consists of people who have entered South Africa lawfully — in possession of valid visas — but whose visas have lapsed and not been renewed.
Ok great, now back to that hypothetical picture. In spite of the fact that I believe Africa belongs to those who live in it we can’t ignore those who were here originally… before the Scramble of Africa: The Occupation, Division, and Colonisation of Africa. If we want to take a look at South Africa without foreign nationals we must consider all things they come with and all which they built while they were here. A South Africa without foreign nationals was once a reality but it is no longer our reality and that is a reality we as South Africans must accept.
Another reality to face is that South Africa’s problems are not caused by foreigners. The violence is driven by a toxic mix of increasing unemployment and inequality, deteriorating trust in government and especially the police, and growing desperation among the poor and jobless. Among this growing tide of dissatisfaction and anger are those who seek easy targets to blame. While most South Africans are not xenophobic, there are a sizeable minority who are. Unscrupulous politicians, looking to distract from their failures, fuel these sentiments by blaming foreign nationals for crime, unemployment and a range of other social ills. This makes foreigners living in underdeveloped areas particularly vulnerable to attack.
So in conclusion, there is no South Africa without “my friend” at the barbershop in the township, the Pakistan guy in the spaza shop where you buy your bread and milk, there’s no Dragon City, no China city, you see that phone cover you like so much, the guy you take your phone to when your screen is cracked, the Europeans you like so much at neighbourhoods market, the guy who owns the bar in town. The Jews who own Sandton, the people you work for and the ones they work for. I could make examples until I’m blue in the face but the truth is there is no South Africa without foreign nationals, whether they are from other African countries or not.
You might agree or disagree with me. Comment below with your thoughts