ANALYSIS: The foreign invasion? How the anti-immigrant backlash makes us all unsafe
Over thepast two weeks, the government has taken drastic actions against immigrants inthe name of safety and sovereignty. This includes a massive raid on counterfeitgoods sold informally on Johannesburg streets. When the largely immigrantstreet-traders resisted, thepolice retreated swearing to return.
A few days later,they regrouped and arrested close to 600 people. Many were undocumented, othershad documents in orders. A few were citizens. Atleast two were South Africans the police presumed were foreign. Yesterday,citizens of Soweto continued to "revenge" the police by lootingforeign-run Spaza shops in what appears to have been a locally coordinatedattack.
What shouldthe South African public make about these moves? Although international relations and co-operation minister NalediPandor has argued that xenophobia is "not a nice trait to have",few others protest these moves. Rather, people across the political andsocio-economic spectrum are celebrating moves to rid South Africa of foreignersand keep others away. The DA and ANC are fiercely contesting who is tougher onimmigration.
The SouthAfrican citizenry's unease with people arriving from Asia and elsewhere inAfrica is nothing new. Norare they out of line with global trends. Yet the current rhetoric reflectsa stark and dangerous turn.
Earlier thisweek, South Africa's new head of the domestic branch of the State SecurityAgency (SSA) told the media that, "The number one domestic threat is toensure that our borders cease to be so porous. …We need to ensure that thosewho come into our country, do so lawfully." The previous week, ANCspokesperson Pule Mabe pronounced that, "The attack on our law-enforcementofficers is an attack on our State and sovereignty, and must never gounpunished. Not only does this undermine the rule of law, it also poses a seriousthreat 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 andservices, they now seemingly present an existential threat. Trading without a licenceceases is not a misdemeanour but a crime against the state. Foreigners'presence threatens law and South Africa's aspirations to build a safe and prosperousland. Immigration becomes synonymous with invasion.
To be sure,South Africa is a dangerous place. Last weekend almost fifty people were killedin the Cape Flats, an area occupied by the national defence force. Across thecountry, dozens die every day in "contact crimes". Local politiciansand advocates are regularly threatened, attacked, or murdered when the speak upagainst corruption or deign to challenge incumbents. Citizens desperate forservices and shelter regularly destroy public buildings while the police admitthey fear attack when entering some townships and informal settlements. Almosteveryone who lives here admits, we may have wonderful constitutionalprotections, but we remain unsafe. The poorest are at the highest risk.Something must be done.
But areforeigners the terrorists, lawbreakers and job stealers government is makingthem out to be? Two weeks ago, the government released statistics showing thatclose to 40% of the country's work force is unemployed. Yet only 3-4% of the populationis foreign, and many of those hire South Africans. Expelling them would dolittle to create jobs.
According topolice statistics, at a national level crime is not closely correlated withimmigrant status. Yes, many people are trading without licenses or have missingor outdated documents. But these violations kill no one. Selling fake Nikes ishardly 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 toprotect their intellectual property. There are foreigners who sell drugs andassault people. However, their impact on overall crime is next to negligible.If the police were honest, they would say the same.
Yet it istrue that immigrants are associated with terrorism and direct assault on therule of law. Yet this assault is coming from the Department of Home Affairs(DHA), the police, and South African citizens.
Take, forexample, the multiple court orders against the DHA to reopen its RefugeeReception Offices and ensure that asylum seekers and refugees can get thedocuments to which they are legally entitled. For years, the DHA has resisted. This is a government department in contempt ofcourt. This is a government department directly assaulting the constitutionalorder.
Alternatively,we might look at the almost constant harassment migrants face at the hands ofpolice. Years ago, the Johannesburg Metro Police openly admitted seeing "refugeesas mobile ATMs". Research by Tanya Zack and others documents theprotection rackets the police run targeted at immigrants both with and withoutpapers. Those who do not pay have their goods illegally seized and resold. Customsagents, border guards, traffic police. They are all in on the game. These are agents of law enforcement erodingthe rule of law.
And whatabout this? Since March 2018, at least 213 people have been killed, 1400 trucks torched and R1.2bn worth of goods lost, largely along the routebetween the port in Durban and Gauteng.
Theinstigators say the trucking industry must stop hiring "foreign nationals"and are demanding that the authorities do something to ensure that "theright people" are employed. The All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF), an organisationrepresenting truck drivers, warned that its "war" will continue "until all foreigners are gone". This is domesticterrorism.
Then thereare the gangsters, politicians, and community associations who organise theattacks on foreigners in the country's townships. Xenowatch research illustrates how thesegroups extract money, houses, and others from immigrants to build parallelgoverning institutions. Through violence and exclusive rhetoric, they establishsystems of rule that conform poorly with the Constitution. These are mini-gangsterstates South African run, violent, and often locally legitimate.
SouthAfricans deserve safe communities. They deserve equality before the law. Theydeserve opportunities to work and better themselves. They should have access tothe services promised them. Gangsterism and violence is a threat to statesovereignty and the constitutional order. Immigration is not. Indeed,scapegoating foreigners is a distraction. It is a threat to accountablegovernment, proper policing, and prosperity. Terrorism is an effort toundermine the state and law. As a group, immigrants are not terrorists. Thoseattacking and killing them are.
- Loren BLandau is the South African Research Chair for Mobility and the Politics ofDifference with the African Centre for Migration & Society at WitsUniversity. Follow him on Twitter: @lorenlandau