World Social Justice Day is this year marked by the theme: “Workers on the move: the quest for social justice”.
Social justice underlies peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. To uphold the principles of social justice, the rights of migrants, among others, should be respected and advanced to promote human dignity, as well as personal development and economic growth.
Most migration today is linked directly or indirectly to the search for decent work opportunities. Even if employment is not the primary driver, it usually features in the migration process at some point. Migration represents not only an opportunity to find work, but also to develop and transfer skills, foster business innovation, and remit earnings to support families and households at home. In 2017 remittances was nearly $600 billion. During 2015 migrants contributed 9.4% of global GDP, a value of US$6.7 trillion
South Africa has a foreign-born population of about 1.6 million. The country, has enormous social justice challenges of its own, and struggles to guarantee fair treatment for migrants, including helping them become economically self sufficient. And, migrants are often blamed for the ills bedevilling the country, such as drugs and prostitution.
Migration in South Africa
South Africa’s 2011 census showed that more than 75% of its foreign-born (international) migrants came from elsewhere in Africa. Southern African Development Community countries made up 68% of all international migrants in the country.
Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and Namibia were among the top 10 ‘sending countries’ in 2016. Most migrants are Zimbabweans and Mozambicans by number, but Basotho are the highest by proportion. Almost half of Lesotho’s men of working age are in South Africa.
The migrants are moved to leave their home countries for South Africa because of problems such as political unrest, economic instability and even environmental degradation in other African regions.
The country, like other middle-and high-income countries worldwide, is an important destination for people seeking better socio-economic opportunities. They are attracted by its relative political stability, strong democracy, good infrastructure and economic stability.
Interestingly though, the vast majority of migration in South Africa is within its borders. It includes circular migration, such as when people work in one part of the country and maintain a residence in another, and permanent migration between and to urban areas. Gauteng province has the most internal migrants.
Migrants and the labour market
Contrary to some claims that migrants are swamping the country, only 3%-4% of South Africa’s population is foreign born. And, most migrants are actively productive - largely in domestic work as well as in the hospitality and public health care sectors. They bring a range of skills and services in contrast to the predominantly low skilled local labour force. They also enrich communities culturally and socially .
Twenty-four percent of migrants in SA have completed matric and a further 13% hold a tertiary education qualification - compared to just 10% of the national average for the latter.
Once in the country, many foreign migrants head for Gauteng – the economic power house of the country, followed by the Western Cape.
Humane treatment of migrants
Migration is, and has always been, a fact of life. It doesn’t matter how hard a state tries to prevent migrants from entering a country - like US president Donald Trump for example. If conditions on their side of the border are bad enough, they will not hesitate to cross, even if it means living an outlaw life. Historic ties simply point them in the direction of opportunities.
The rise in migration globally has been accompanied by a rise in anti-immigrant and xenophobic attitudes and action. In South Africa, the treatment of foreigners by the state, the police, and citizens, is often inhumane, sometimes leading to deadly violence.
Fuelling hateful prejudices and inciting violence are a threat to the social well-being of both foreigners and citizens, as well as to the political and economic stability of a country. Hence, South Africans, should rethink their notions of belonging, citizenship and foreignness. Importantly, they need to realise that the human rights enshrined in their progressive, inclusive constitution apply to foreigners.
Critical thinking in these areas will hopefully undermine nationalist assumptions that the constitution protects the rights of citizens only. Hopefully, this will lead to the transformation of the largely inefficient immigration institutions. This, in a way that would secure entry for, and safety of foreigners, and develop, facilitate, and manage a better informed, cohesive and regionally responsive labour migration policy framework in South Africa. Such a framework should recognise the country’s socio-economic challenges and develop provisions that will ensure migrant workers contribute to the national economic and labour objectives.
Universal rights could be rethought in such a way that they are responsive to a particular context, while also allowing for political membership to be extended to documented foreigners. Political membership implies a certain degree of protection which could possibly minimise exploitation (like poor wages and working conditions; child labour; health hazards), the threat of xenophobic attitudes, discrimination and violence.
Chris Jones is academic project leader in the Department of Practical Theology and Missiology, Stellenbosch University.