Guest Column

The cost of being a poor immigrant

2017-01-22 06:36
Taxis bringing poor immigrants into South Africa, from its borders to its cities, can be stopped numerous times en route and the drivers are familiar with the ritual of having to pay a bribe to expedite their passage. Picture: HERMAN VERWEY

Taxis bringing poor immigrants into South Africa, from its borders to its cities, can be stopped numerous times en route and the drivers are familiar with the ritual of having to pay a bribe to expedite their passage. Picture: HERMAN VERWEY

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‘Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” – JAMES A BALDWIN

It is extremely expensive to be poor.

Prepaid airtime is more expensive than on contract. If you live in a shack without an electricity connection, you are forced to pay much more for paraffin and gas. If you cannot afford to live near the CBD, you must shell out even more money for taxis travelling to and from work.

It is even more expensive if you are poor, black and an immigrant coming into South Africa from other parts of the continent. The costs of just surviving are prohibitive. You are vulnerable to theft, extortion, abuse and violence merely because you originate from the other side of the Limpopo River. This is the reality of the most vulnerable people in this country.

To illustrate this, I would like to tell you a story of institutionalised xenophobia that targets other Africans and how it encourages the extortion of poor and vulnerable black families by authorities. In short, these enforcement mechanisms actually produce criminality.

It is just a few days after New Year celebrations and I am travelling by taxi from the Junta Taxi Rank in Maputo, Mozambique, to Wanderers Taxi Rank in Johannesburg. It is a six hour trip by car and normally only an hour longer or so in a taxi. Taxi travel across the border is popular because it tends to be faster, leaves at any time of day and costs at least R100 to R300 less than Intercape or Greyhound. And taxis, unlike buses, are willing to wait for passengers held up by immigration agents at the Lebombo Border Post. They are also willing to transport undocumented passengers.

As we reach the border, we are stopped by Mozambique police who demand a bribe from our driver for access to the control area. We already know this is standard procedure because taxis often carry Mozambican passengers who do not have passports. Rather than get bogged down for hours, the bribe is the law enforcement equivalent of open sesame.

On the other side of the border we are forced to wait in 35°C heat for two passengers who have not been able to traverse the control area. Presumably they are busy bribing their way across.

During much of the year, crossing the border without a passport is relatively quick and painless. But during the festive season, often people are stopped by half a dozen police and customs officials, each demanding passengers show a passport or hand them some Randelas for yet another cooldrink. The necessary transactions take place and, finally, we are once again on our way. We are in Mpumalanga, making our way along the N4 toll road to Joburg. Everyone is sorted – or so we thought.

During the next six hours of our 10-hour taxi trip, we are stopped another dozen times by SA Police Service (SAPS) and traffic cops, each of whom demands to see our passports. Our driver, respectfully and affectionately nicknamed James Bond, knows what to do. He’s being going at it for years. He gets out of the taxi and walks over to one of the police officers and, chatting them up, referring to them as his “cousin”, guilefully hands them some cash. Next thing we know we’re back on the road. This happens over and over during the course of the day.

We eventually make a pit stop at the Shell Ultra City near Middleburg. Speaking to our James Bond, who is chugging an energy drink while waiting for passengers to go to the toilet, I find out the going rate for bribes: R30 here, R50 there; sometimes each officer demands his or her own separate cool drink. That’s what makes it expensive. He also tells me that this day was not out of the ordinary; he is often stopped as many as 15 times during a single trip from Maputo to Joburg. Bond, I realise, was really our hero on that day. I can only imagine how much longer the trip would have taken if any of those traffic stops had resulted in our taxi actually being detained.

I do some calculations. Our driver was forced to pay between R400 and R1 000. And where does this money come from? The premium is charged to passengers who aren’t able to produce a passport upon commencement of the journey. These are the very same people who cannot afford passports in the first place.

This is systematic anti-poor racism. When we hear about Malusi Gigaba’s home affairs cracking down on our borders, we need to understand how this actually plays out in practice with regard to the everyday lived experiences of Africans moving into South Africa to escape political and economic persecution.

When we hear Joburg Mayor Herman Mashaba equate criminality with foreigners, we need to ask who is making them illegal in the first place. When the police claim to be preventing illegal immigration, we should wonder if the only people who are turned away at the border are those too poor to pay bribes.

The above story is not exceptional. It is the norm. It tells of a system of authority whose purpose is not actually to prevent illegal immigration into South Africa, but to manage it so that the only way poor Africans can enter the country is through subsidising the income of our law enforcement.

Imagine, for a second, how much an officer can make each day by targeting dozens of taxis carrying vulnerable passengers. It is no wonder that they are more than happy to set up road blocks on the N4, rather than do any actual police work.

We’re talking about the theft of poor foreigners’ resources on a massive scale. It is like an e-toll that targets poor black foreigners. SAPS, border agents and traffic officers are not fighting criminality, they’re producing it. A minor transgression of passing through colonial-era arbitrary boundaries, which divided extended families into separate nationalities, becomes extortion and fraud against the most vulnerable.

We’re not talking about a few bad apples. This is not the odd corrupt cop. In our case, out of a few dozen officers, not a single one refused payment in order to look the other way.

In this context, which is not confined to the N4 corridor, but part of living as a foreign national throughout the country, Mashaba’s xenophobic statements are both dangerous and counterproductive. They are dangerous because they build an environment for a resurgence of the xenophobic pogroms that have targeted foreign nationals. They are counterproductive because instructing SAPS and law enforcement to crack down on “criminal foreigners” will not result in a suppression of actual crimes. Rather, it will give police free reign to target the most vulnerable people in Joburg for the crime of being poor and lacking documentation. Poor immigrants will be targeted for persecution and extortion while the actual criminals go free.

When our government calls for increased policing against “criminal migrants”, ask yourself who is profiting and benefiting. Who is creating criminality? And who, then, is the real criminal?

Sacks is a PhD candidate at Columbia University. He previously worked as a freelance journalist, writer and founder of a children’s not-for-profit organisation

What are your thoughts on poor immigrants being targeted for extortion?

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Read more on:    immigrants  |  poverty
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