Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Immigration and xenophobia in South Africa: the end of the liberation dream

As outbreaks of violence against foreigners prove near impossible to control, as the numbers of people fleeing and deportations increase and international pressure on SA mounts, there is another reason why government will not be able to leave immigration problems to fester as they have.

How do we know an illegal immigrant is more likely to break the country's laws and create trouble than a legal one? This seems to be the assumption in the current crisis, leading to general agreement it is ok for illegals to be 'sent home' while legals are ok to stay.
But the true answer is we do not know: we do not have here the easy solution to our problems many like to think we have. We are deciding on the basis that a legal immigrant has gone through some process - has been checked for a criminal record, can show means of support and meet other requirements.

The awkward truth is the ANC, like any other government, cannot in any circumstances treat everyone the same. They cannot avoid having criteria for letting any person in or keeping him or her out. Legals are permissible and made acceptable by legislation, which means 'xenophobia' is always there in the eyes of some.

Whoever is let in precludes others who are not let in because no government on earth can let in everyone. And the more efficient government is at enforcing the rules, the more cause there is for resentment and protest among the 'undesirables', backed or attacked by their sympathisers or maligners: the refugees and unemployed, who are said to be a drain on 'our' resources; those in honest work who are taking 'our' jobs; the educated middle classes whose skills mean 'they' are running the economy now.
These are the hard choices that must be faced and made by policy makers. In South Africa, an ANC government that had no clear policy and had done little or nothing to think one out was willing to make 'illegal' immigrants the scapegoats for all the problems: for 'crime and unfair business practices,' to quote President Jacob Zuma.

Broad sections of the public have little option but to go along with this. The issue is lost sight of in arguments about intolerance and controlling the violence, setting up refugee camps, appealing to an illusory Pan Africanism, the equality and brotherhood of all Africans. There is hair-splitting about whether the trouble is xenophobia or Afrophobia or just criminality. We hear the excuse of a Third Force again as a floundering ANC government that promises a better life for all does not know which way to turn.

When President Zuma admits, as if his government has just noticed, that SA's immigration laws are 'less than perfect' and under review, he is admitting the real world sets limits to freedom. He expects other African countries to take their share of responsibility. We glimpse we are at the beginning of a conclusive chapter to our liberation dreams.