South Africa


If we want to fight xenophobia, we need to change the narrative about migrants in South Africa

The longstanding migration narrative in South Africa, ‘ama-kwerekwere are stealing our jobs’ is built upon a host of misconceptions. (Photo: Gallo Images / Thapelo Maphakela)

Political leaders must be bold enough to speak more positively or at least objectively about migrants. They must be responsible enough to accept that xenophobia is a reality in South Africa and work towards solving the problem with a focus on protecting and upholding human rights.

South Africa has historically attracted immigration (economic and labour migrants), first from countries such as Zimbabwe and Lesotho with the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in the 19th century, and later displaced migrants due to conflict from countries such as Somalia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This has continued to date, but concurrently, the country also experiences emigration of its skilled population to more developed countries, an overlooked fact in migration discourses.

The economic value of migrants to the South African economy is relatively high. According to the “World Economic Outlook, April 2020: The Great Lockdown” report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), migration is an important economic activity globally because immigrants contribute to labour markets, public finance and economic growth of their host countries. In South Africa, immigrants bring a diversity of skills, they create employment opportunities for themselves by establishing new businesses and they raise the government’s fiscal balance because they are required to pay more in taxes, according to the OECD Development Centre.

However, the post-apartheid experience has painted migrants in a negative light. Through the group “Put South Africa First” and many others, the socioeconomic argument that migrants steal South African jobs has been expanded to allege that African migrants (particularly from Nigeria and Zimbabwe) are engaged in robberies, kidnappings, sex trade and human trafficking as well as drug peddling.

Local South Africans also believe there is an influx of migrants that jeopardises their livelihoods. This has further fuelled migrant-local South African host tensions resulting in xenophobic violence, manifesting in the form of looting and vandalism of African migrant-owned shops, assaults, and killings of African migrants.

Violence against migrants in South Africa is prevalent among the African black population of migrants and is perpetuated by the reluctance of South African political leaders to accept and speak out against xenophobia. The narrative at national level seems to indicate that these violent acts are criminal and not necessarily xenophobic or Afrophobic. In 2008, the state authorities took a long time to respond to the xenophobic violence that claimed more than 60 lives and left many more displaced. Similarly, violence against African migrants in 2015, 2017, 2019, 2020 and more recently in March 2021 in Durban has been explained as either criminal and/or xenophobic.

Xenophobia is the most topical migration challenge in South Africa. While most South African locals and African migrants associate xenophobia with violence, it is in some cases difficult to determine if a particular violent act was merely criminal or xenophobic. Xenophobia is defined in the Declaration on Racism, Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance against Migrants and Trafficked Persons (Teheran, 18 February 2001) as, “attitudes, prejudices and behaviour that reject, exclude and often vilify persons, based on the perception that they are outsiders or foreigners to the community, society or national identity”.

This means that xenophobia can be present in the absence of violence because it is not just actions, but also attitudes and perceptions.

However, migrants must not be vilified or perceived in a negative light because they too are human beings with human rights seeking a better life by migrating to South Africa. A 2016 Africa Check study found that migrants from South Africa’s neighbouring countries were more competitive and considerably ahead in the semi-skilled category, hence they had more chances of being employed in semi-skilled jobs. In most cases, undocumented migrants were willing to take precarious work that local South Africans were not willing to take, which is contrary to the misconception that African migrants steal South African jobs.

The longstanding migration narrative, “ama-kwerekwere are stealing our jobs” in South Africa is built upon a host of misconceptions informed by a general lack of understanding of migrants and migration issues, the absence of accurate and reliable migrant stock statistics, and a lack of awareness of migrant rights.

Additionally, there was an estimated total of about 2.9 million international migrants (including African, European and Asian migrants) at mid-year in 2020, which is about 4.8% of the total South African population of about 60 million people, according to the International Organization on Migration Statistics. Although the number may increase when considering undocumented migrants, it is still not nearly enough to be referred to as an influx. Furthermore, there is a need for more accurate capturing of migration data statistics.

Nevertheless, there are systemic challenges that continue to exacerbate the current tense situation between migrants and asylum seekers. Aside from abject poverty and misery, the Covid-19 measures by the South African government have deepened the unequal treatment of migrants, particularly asylum seekers and refugees. Mukumbang, Ambe and Adebiyi have argued there is a lack of consideration of migrants in “economic, poverty, and hunger alleviation schemes” whereby this marginalised population is excluded.

The pertinent question is, how can the narrative about migrants in South Africa be changed?

The first step to solving a problem is to identify, define and accept the existence of the said problem. Political leaders must be bold enough to take a step in speaking more positively or at least objectively about migrants. They must be responsible enough to accept that xenophobia is a reality in South Africa and work towards solving the problem with a focus on protecting and upholding human rights. This will set a good example, as people tend to follow the direction of their political leaders.

For instance, an estimated 163,000 asylum seekers have been waiting for decisions on their applications for years and others, decades. According to SANews, on 8 March 2021, the United Nations Refugee Agency and South African Home Affairs Department signed a milestone agreement to eliminate delays and the backlog of asylum seeker applications, opening up space for more inclusion of migrants in South Africa. This is a commendable move by the government to positively change the treatment of migrants in general and asylum seekers more specifically. The government has demonstrated the political will to address the asylum seekers backlog by registering them on the system.

Second, it is a common misconception that all migrants are the same — people must be informed, educated and made aware that migrants are not a homogenous group of people to be held in contempt. Broadly, migrants include refugees, asylum seekers, documented and undocumented migrants, as well as economic migrants to name a few. They must be referred to with respect, using appropriate migration terminology such as “documented” or “undocumented” migrants rather than “legal” and “illegal” migrants and they must be afforded their due human rights.

Third, the media and civil society can help give migrants and locals neutral platforms to communicate with one another, openly talk about issues that are important to them and clarify misconceptions about one another. Additionally, the media can help reduce xenophobic tendencies by reporting positively on sensitive migration issues or even the positive work migrants are conducting in the communities they live in.

Last, migrants and their South African hosts must be afforded platforms to improve their relationships through cooperative projects that allow them to work together. It is important for both migrants and local South African hosts to engage in dialogues when they engage in cooperative projects that serve as networking platforms facilitating the improvement of their personal and professional relationships. The Migration Project is an excellent illustration of an intervention aimed at changing the narrative about both migrants and local South Africans in the country. The Migration Project is co-funded by the European Union (EU) and implemented by the Democracy Development Program (DDP) and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS).

The objective of the project is to improve community interrelationships and reduce conflict in KwaZulu-Natal through facilitating socioeconomic cooperation between African migrants and local South African hosts. The project also aims to strengthen the capability of civil society organisations in lessening xenophobic tendencies among migrants and local South African hosts in KwaZulu-Natal.

The longstanding migration narrative, “ama-kwerekwere are stealing our jobs” in South Africa is built upon a host of misconceptions informed by a general lack of understanding of migrants and migration issues, the absence of accurate and reliable migrant stock statistics, and a lack of awareness of migrant rights.

This narrative does not reflect the reality of the lived experiences of migrants in the country and xenophobic attacks have been the consequence thereof. What is needed is a change in the narrative focusing on reducing conflict and contributing towards improving socio-economic interrelationships between migrants and local South Africans from the grassroots level, backed up by political support and an overarching democratic policy framework. DM

Tawanda Matema is a Project Manager at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) working on the Migration Project. He is a former KAS scholar and has worked at the South African Institute of International Affairs’ (SAIIA) economic diplomacy programme as a junior researcher. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Zimbabwe (2014), an Honours degree in Development Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand (2019) and is completing his Masters in Development Studies at Wits. He writes on behalf of The Migration Project and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.


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