South Africa: The 'illegal Migrant' Red Herring


According to Solly Msimanga, City of Tshwane mayor and Gauteng Province's premier candidate for South Africa's 2019 elections, 'The ANC [ruling African National Congress] has failed to secure our borders ... to a point where it actively contributes to illegal immigration.' He was speaking at the launch of the Democratic Alliance (DA) immigration policy.

The DA argues that a policy is desperately needed because numerous problems in South Africa are associated with 'illegal immigration', the country's 'porous borders' and an ineffective Department of Home Affairs. The main opposition party says undocumented immigrants are not only an added burden to the state, but are responsible for increased crime, unemployment and service disruptions.

In Johannesburg, DA mayor Herman Mashaba has been criticised for what commentators regard as an anti-African migrant stance in addressing some of the city's problems. These are now articulated clearly as the party's policy and position.

What the recently launched policy underscores isn't new. Earlier this year, speaking in Parliament, the DA's home affairs shadow minister Haniff Hoosen argued that 'the employment of illegal and undocumented immigrants has a direct impact on our job creation abilities as a country'. The DA's related argument is that foreigners are the cause of high unemployment rates, because they are 'stealing jobs' from South Africans.

The DA's migration policy lowers the bar on the conversation for all political parties

Research and evidence disprove this, however. There is no data to support this assertion, and the estimations of undocumented migrants are regularly inflated by politicians to make their presence seem like a bigger issue. Reliable estimates are in the range of no more than two million undocumented migrants in the country.

Not only are immigrants not 'stealing jobs' from South Africans, but research shows that in many instances they are contributing to job creation in smaller enterprises and in the informal sector. In the industries in which most immigrants are employed, they mostly do the work that South Africans choose not to.

A recent study by the World Bank reveals that immigration has a positive impact on local employment, labour earning and wages. Although in South Africa unemployment is lower among foreign nationals than locals, for every immigrant employed in South Africa, two jobs are created for locals. Also, immigrants take part in the economy by paying taxes and rent, and by providing cheaper goods and services to the community.

The DA's policy effectively lowers the bar on the conversation for all political parties. The government's current approach is to securitise migration, and in the absence of real political opposition, the ANC has carte blanche to scapegoat foreigners and use 'secure borders' rhetoric as a solution. Where will the pressure come to raise the bar on smart decisions?

SA's 'detain and deport' policy has proven costly and inefficient at deterring undocumented migrants

The issue of effective border management is a serious one for the country and region, but the way it is currently amplified to lay blame on African foreigners (or those allegedly letting the foreigners in) is problematic. South Africa faces high unemployment, inequality and inadequate provision of services, but this doesn't justify heavy-handed security based approaches to inward migration.

This inclination stems from misconceptions about migrants, who are perceived as threats to both national security and the economy. These views are deeply rooted in nationalist sentiments promoting an 'us' versus 'them' dynamic, and make migration a politically heated issue used to serve political agendas.

South Africa is already reinforcing its borders and working to remove 'aliens' and 'undesirable migrants', as illustrated by its 'detain and deport' policy. This stance has proven costly and an inefficient deterrent to undocumented migration. For example, the estimated cost of building one processing centre can be up to R298 million. This doesn't include operations and the cost of deportation or repatriation. In addition to the cost, evidence shows that detention and deportation don't effectively deter irregular migration.

Nevertheless, politicians across South Africa's political divide continue to justify it, blaming migrants for high unemployment rates and poor service delivery. This resonates with voters - many of whom are disenfranchised and unemployed. It buys politicians time and earns them political currency. Scapegoating allows politicians to direct attention away from their own failings, including mismanagement, corruption or inability to improve access to services.

Accurate information is urgently needed to undo the harm caused by misconceptions about migrants

In the absence of reliable data on the extent of undocumented migration in South Africa, political posturing is made easier. Accurate information is urgently needed to help undo the harm caused by the pervasive misconceptions about migration and migrants - and to effectively address migration issues.

Systematic data collection would help fill the information gap, but policymakers don't always trust it, or consider it when it is available. This means that current policies tend to be based more on misconceptions about migration than on concrete empirical evidence. Policies based on scapegoating migrants shift the debate away from how to solve the real problems of corruption, job creation and service provision.

As complex an issue as migration is, political leaders have a key role to play in dispelling myths rather than fuelling them. Using migration as a tool for potential electoral gains with an immediate populist anti-migrant effect could undermine South Africa's potential for inclusive developmental.

Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Head, Special Projects, ISS Pretoria

For more on this topic, join the ISS seminar on 25 October Keep them out: costs of South Africa's migration policy, and get a copy of the latest ISS research on the issue.

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