Voting and loathing in South Africa

The general election is approaching in South Africa, so let’s blame everything on migrants.

Xenophobic attacks
African immigrants displaced by xenophobic violence sit at the Cato Manor police station in Durban on May 27, 2008, [File: Reuters/Rogan Ward]

On March 6, just two months before South Africa‘s elections, African National Congress (ANC) politician and current premier of Gauteng province, David Makhura, declared: “I think some specific crimes [are committed] by some specific nationalities or foreign nationals are involved.”

Whenever a powerful South African political leader blames undocumented migrants for perpetrating crime and lawlessness, I get shivers down my spine. The consequences of expressing such broad, unsubstantiated claims can be deadly, as events in the recent past have demonstrated.

In 2008, more than 60 people were killed in weeks-long xenophobic riots across the country; the violence was preceded by much talk by South African officials about “flood” of “aliens”. Since then, the country has witnessed fatal attacks on foreigners on a regular basis. Most recently, in late March, at least three people died after an angry crowd attacked foreign-owned shops and homes in the city of Durban.

As South Africa’s May 8 general election nears, politicians from both the ruling ANC and the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party are stepping up their anti-migrant rhetoric. Plagiarising from US president Donald Trump‘s electoral playbook, they have repeatedly described foreigners as criminals who are taking advantage of and exploiting the nation’s riches.

The ANC has promised to take a “hard line” on undocumented foreigners and the DA has said it is bent on “fixing immigration”. But is migration really South Africa’s biggest problem?

I am a migrant from Zimbabwe. I came to South Africa 14 years ago after the economy of my country imploded. I have a permanent residency here. 

Contrary to what Makhura and others like him claim, I’m not a criminal. I work legally in South Africa.

I, and the two million migrants in South Africa, fear drug lords, property hijackers, carjackers, murderers, rapists and petty thieves, whatever their nationality may be. I don’t fraternise with criminal elements and remain panic-stricken and angered by the pervasive threat of falling prey to violent crime, just as much as my South African friends and colleagues are.

Unfortunately, the massive divide between a law-abiding migrant, documented or not, and a “foreign criminal”, is deliberately obscured and purposefully politicised. I’m always inundated by a sense of deep shame and discomfort each time a migrant, especially a fellow Zimbabwean, reportedly commits a crime. But the truth is, the vast majority of us are not involved in criminal activity.

In a 2017 analysis, South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies (ISS) concluded that “most people committing crimes across the country are South Africans and not foreign nationals”. The ISS study also said unsubstantiated public declarations made by senior government officials on undocumented migrants tend to “promote xenophobic attitudes and may provoke violence against foreign nationals”.

Currently, 7.5 percent of the prison population in South Africa is made up of foreigners and, according to the 2011 census, 4.2 percent of the South African population was foreign-born. Given that migrants have a higher chance of being apprehended by the police, since they are purposefully targeted, there does not seem to be evidence that there is a higher degree of criminality among them.

Blaming other problems plaguing the country on foreigners is also based on non-existent evidence.

Contrary to what Makhura and others like him claim, I, and many other migrants, do not exploit South Africa’s healthcare system. I pay taxes in South Africa and therefore contribute to the funds that go towards the healthcare budget. Whatever is not covered by the system, I pay out of my own pocket. My three children were born here, and I am forever grateful to the South African nurses, specialists and doctors who delivered them safely and cared for them at government hospitals in Pretoria.   

The fact that state-run hospitals are overwhelmed and underfunded is not because of us, migrants. In fact, it has been well-documented that plenty of migrants are turned away by South African hospitals, despite the fact that they have the legal right to access free basic healthcare. The health care system is suffering because of major structural issues the South African state faces, including problems of mismanagement and misallocation of funds. 

That there are some migrants who do not pay taxes on their labour or commercial activities is also not a problem of migration, but a problem of law enforcement by the South African state. More importantly, whatever “tax evasion” is happening among migrant workers, it is negligible in terms of scope compared to the massive amounts of money South Africa is losing due to the complex schemes major corporations and business elites undertake to avoid paying their dues. As one recent study found, “98% of the tax loss is associated with profit-shifting by the biggest 10% of multinational corporations”.

Likewise, unemployment woes in South Africa are not caused by migration. Migrants most often than not take low-paying jobs that locals avoid and more often than not restrict their economic activities to the informal sector anyway.

Migrants are also not to blame for low salaries. The precarious situation they often found themselves in force them to accept the worse working condition and lower pay. However, it is the duty of the state to ensure fair remuneration in all sectors of the economy and punish employers who do not provide it.

Indeed, when one looks at the big picture – the pervasive poverty, the poor service delivery, the underdevelopment of infrastructure, lack of housing and high levels of violent crime – it is clear that migration is not South Africa’s biggest problem.

But it is a convenient issue to rant about in public when the general population needs to be distracted from the fact that over the past 25 years, the South African political elite has not managed to deliver on the many promises it has made.

It is much easier to fuel xenophobic sentiments among the South African population than to try to counter them. In fact, it is politically rewarding to do so. Blaming foreigners for everything is an old, political gimmick that unfortunately still works and South African politicians are showing no signs of giving up on it in their electoral games.

And while they are quick to condemn violence when it gets really bad, they seem to make no connection between their routine toxic rhetoric and what is happening on the ground, between talking about “undocumented foreigners… not paying taxes and running businesses without licenses” and the shooting of dozens of migrant shopkeepers every year.

Back in 2008, after the deadly xenophobic riots, the opponents of then President Thabo Mbeki within the ANC blamed his policies for the situation. Today, 11 years later, it does not seem that they have done much to rectify whatever Mbeki did wrong.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

I work legally in South Africa and have permanent residenicy.