Herman Mashaba

Herman Mashaba: Let's talk honestly and frankly about undocumented workers

2019-03-10 06:00
Asylum seekers gather outside the Foreshore offices of Home Affairs in Cape Town. (Tariro Washinyira/GroundUp)

Asylum seekers gather outside the Foreshore offices of Home Affairs in Cape Town. (Tariro Washinyira/GroundUp)

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South Africa can no longer continue to operate with the proverbial elephant in the room and try to convince ourselves it is actually something else, writes Herman Mashaba.

South Africans, we are a funny bunch.

Even when confronted with important issues – issues that, if discussed openly, honestly and frankly, would lead to equally important resolutions that may actually benefit us as a nation – we choose instead to beat around the bush.

Over the last few months, I have observed how matters of national importance have come up for discussion and, rather than tackle them head-on, we opt to talk around issues.

From my observations, it would appear that, as a nation, we would rather console ourselves with the pretense of 'at least' having said something about a particular issue rather than actually debate its merits – no matter how uncomfortable – and coming up with resolutions that advance our national interests.

We have been beaten into submission to the point of lacking the confidence to be able to speak openly and honestly about issues which no longer benefit us as a country.

This thought struck me recently as I watched a television news insert in which Gauteng Premier David Makhura lamented the heavy financial burden, to the provincial public health system, of the increased number of undocumented persons seeking medical assistance in the province's facilities.

I know too well about this subject – more than 80 000 people seeking medical treatment at our health facilities are undocumented persons.

The predicament we are faced with, as a City, is that, constitutionally, we are expected to treat patients irrespective whether they are documented or not. But little attention is paid to the financial implications we have to deal with.

Premier Makhura seems to suddenly appreciate this fact. So does his MEC for Finance, Barbara Creecy.

What is disconcerting is that Makhura was one of the people who attacked me when I raised the issue of the financial burden caused undocumented persons requiring services rendered by government institutions.

He and his supporters suggested I was xenophobic. But he isn't?

Of course, Premier David Makhura is not xenophobic. Neither am I.

The bottom line is that the issue of undocumented persons is a pressing matter that must be acted upon without delay. Mr Makhura understands that now. Good for you, Sir.

However, in doing so we must be frank and honest with one another as is expected of people who hold the interests of South Africa close to heart.

South Africa can no longer continue to operate with the proverbial elephant in the room and try to convince ourselves it is actually something else.

Those who disagree with this line of thought will insist that South Africa has entered into international agreements, some of which protect people who end up in our country for a myriad reasons, including escaping political persecution while others are economic migrants.

That is understandable, and South Africa must, indeed, fulfil its obligations.

But we must also insist on our right to be honest when we can no longer sustain the financial burden that comes with having millions of undocumented persons, in our country, who require crucial but limited services that come at a serious cost.

We are battling economically, and while corruption takes away billions of rand that could best be used to provide services to citizens, this is no reason to continue turning a blind eye to the financial burden caused by this problem of illegal immigration.

As it is, we are terrible at preventing corruption and holding people accountable for it, so what chance do we stand to recoup the billions that have been stolen?

And this is not to say South Africa should use undocumented persons as any kind of excuse. We must pay special attention to both issues.

Back to those international agreements, I feel it is high-time we give ourselves permission to tell the world that, while in the past we may have been in a position to fulfil certain obligations, we are no longer able to. Perhaps it is time to re-negotiate?

We must tell the world that there is only so much we can do.

What use is it to pretend to be all things to all people when South Africa cannot be the best that it can be to its own people, many of whom have lived under crushing poverty their whole lives?

Perhaps the time has come for the South African government to be bold enough to engage the leaders of each of the nations whose people are here, and ask them what they are doing to improve conditions back home so that their citizens no longer see it necessary to enter into other countries illegally?

We must also demand to know what they plan to do to improve their countries to prevent undocumented persons from risking their lives to enter other countries, and risk exploitation.

While we South Africans may be concerned about undocumented persons taking advantage of our porous borders, we must realise that it is a problem throughout the world.

Therefore, we should not be afraid to engage other leaders on this issue and demand compensation, as Premier Makhura suggested recently.

No leader should be allowed to wash their hands of a crisis that is also of their making.

The bottom line is that the establishment of the rule of law cannot exist alone in speeches and conversations, we have to achieve it on the ground on a daily basis where our residents live.

No country has ever succeeded and prospered without the achievement of the rule of law. 

- Mashaba is executive mayor of the City of Johannesburg.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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