Over the past two weeks, the government has taken drastic actions against immigrants in the name of safety and sovereignty. This includes a massive raid on counterfeit goods sold informally on Johannesburg streets. When the largely immigrant street-traders resisted, the police retreated swearing to return.
A few days later, they regrouped and arrested close to 600 people. Many were undocumented, others had documents in orders. A few were citizens. At least two were South Africans the police presumed were foreign. Yesterday, citizens of Soweto continued to "revenge" the police by looting foreign-run Spaza shops in what appears to have been a locally coordinated attack.
What should the South African public make about these moves? Although international relations and co-operation minister Naledi Pandor has argued that xenophobia is "not a nice trait to have", few others protest these moves. Rather, people across the political and socio-economic spectrum are celebrating moves to rid South Africa of foreigners and keep others away. The DA and ANC are fiercely contesting who is tougher on immigration.
The South African citizenry's unease with people arriving from Asia and elsewhere in Africa is nothing new. Nor are they out of line with global trends. Yet the current rhetoric reflects a stark and dangerous turn.
Earlier this week, South Africa's new head of the domestic branch of the State Security Agency (SSA) told the media that, "The number one domestic threat is to ensure that our borders cease to be so porous. …We need to ensure that those who come into our country, do so lawfully." The previous week, ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe pronounced that, "The attack on our law-enforcement officers is an attack on our State and sovereignty, and must never go unpunished. Not only does this undermine the rule of law, it also poses a serious threat to the security of our State."
Politicians, citizens, and activists now comfortably frame foreigners as terrorists, a menace from abroad. They not only compete for jobs and services, they now seemingly present an existential threat. Trading without a licence ceases is not a misdemeanour but a crime against the state. Foreigners' presence threatens law and South Africa's aspirations to build a safe and prosperous land. Immigration becomes synonymous with invasion.
To be sure, South Africa is a dangerous place. Last weekend almost fifty people were killed in the Cape Flats, an area occupied by the national defence force. Across the country, dozens die every day in "contact crimes". Local politicians and advocates are regularly threatened, attacked, or murdered when the speak up against corruption or deign to challenge incumbents. Citizens desperate for services and shelter regularly destroy public buildings while the police admit they fear attack when entering some townships and informal settlements. Almost everyone who lives here admits, we may have wonderful constitutional protections, but we remain unsafe. The poorest are at the highest risk. Something must be done.
But are foreigners the terrorists, lawbreakers and job stealers government is making them out to be? Two weeks ago, the government released statistics showing that close to 40% of the country's work force is unemployed. Yet only 3-4% of the population is foreign, and many of those hire South Africans. Expelling them would do little to create jobs.
According to police statistics, at a national level crime is not closely correlated with immigrant status. Yes, many people are trading without licenses or have missing or outdated documents. But these violations kill no one. Selling fake Nikes is hardly a threat to formal businesses to elite customers at ten times the price. The only one being hurt are the global corporations pushing South Africa to protect their intellectual property. There are foreigners who sell drugs and assault people. However, their impact on overall crime is next to negligible. If the police were honest, they would say the same.
Yet it is true that immigrants are associated with terrorism and direct assault on the rule of law. Yet this assault is coming from the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), the police, and South African citizens.
Take, for example, the multiple court orders against the DHA to reopen its Refugee Reception Offices and ensure that asylum seekers and refugees can get the documents to which they are legally entitled. For years, the DHA has resisted. This is a government department in contempt of court. This is a government department directly assaulting the constitutional order.
Alternatively, we might look at the almost constant harassment migrants face at the hands of police. Years ago, the Johannesburg Metro Police openly admitted seeing "refugees as mobile ATMs". Research by Tanya Zack and others documents the protection rackets the police run targeted at immigrants both with and without papers. Those who do not pay have their goods illegally seized and resold. Customs agents, border guards, traffic police. They are all in on the game. These are agents of law enforcement eroding the rule of law.
And what about this? Since March 2018, at least 213 people have been killed, 1 400 trucks torched and R1.2bn worth of goods lost, largely along the route between the port in Durban and Gauteng.
The instigators say the trucking industry must stop hiring "foreign nationals" and are demanding that the authorities do something to ensure that "the right people" are employed. The All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF), an organisation representing truck drivers, warned that its "war" will continue "until all foreigners are gone". This is domestic terrorism.
Then there are the gangsters, politicians, and community associations who organise the attacks on foreigners in the country's townships. Xenowatch research illustrates how these groups extract money, houses, and others from immigrants to build parallel governing institutions. Through violence and exclusive rhetoric, they establish systems of rule that conform poorly with the Constitution. These are mini-gangster states South African run, violent, and often locally legitimate.
South Africans deserve safe communities. They deserve equality before the law. They deserve opportunities to work and better themselves. They should have access to the services promised them. Gangsterism and violence is a threat to state sovereignty and the constitutional order. Immigration is not. Indeed, scapegoating foreigners is a distraction. It is a threat to accountable government, proper policing, and prosperity. Terrorism is an effort to undermine the state and law. As a group, immigrants are not terrorists. Those attacking and killing them are.
- Loren B Landau is the South African Research Chair for Mobility and the Politics of Difference with the African Centre for Migration & Society at Wits University. Follow him on Twitter: @lorenlandau