Let’s stop pussyfooting around immigration


Let’s stop pussyfooting around immigration

ANNELIESE BURGESS looks at a new draft white paper and says it seems to be more an ANC election narrative than a sober attempt to fix a monumental government failure.


LET'S start with the facts. Or rather the lack of facts, because there are no reliable statistics on the rate of immigration or the number of immigrants in South Africa.

In 2022, Diego Iturralde, chief director for demography and population statistics at Statistics South Africa, said there were 3.96 million foreign-born people living in the country.

The 2022 census, however, indicated that there were 2.4 million immigrants in the country, with the top five “sending countries" being Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi and the UK, which together account for 85% of immigration. The highest number of immigrants — about a million — were from Zimbabwe, followed by Mozambique.

The average undercount rate in the census was 31.06% (in the Western Cape, it was over 35%). The international norm is about 5%. As a result, much of the information ir provides has to be taken with a pinch of salt, but perhaps none more so than the data on immigration, as it is safe to say undocumented persons were not lining up to be counted.

The issue of migration policy and its implementation has never been more pressing, says Alan Hirsch, emeritus professor at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town.

“Immigration has grown relatively rapidly in the past 20 years. The proportion of migrants to local people more than doubled from a relatively low level of 2.1% in 2000 to a moderate level of 4.8% in 2020, according to a study drawing on UN data," he says.

UN statistics indicate that Côte d'Ivoire is the only country on the continent with a higher percentage of immigrants than South Africa.

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Political hot potato

Whatever the number of immigrants, the bottom line is that as we head towards a pivotal election, the public perception of uncontrolled illegal immigration will be a key campaign issue. In fact, it already is.

In June last year, Operation Dudula, a former civic organisation in Soweto, registered as a political party. Dudula means “push out” in Zulu. The organisation rose to prominence during the July 2021 unrest and its leaders say one of their main aims is to “deal decisively with illegal, undocumented foreigners".

The Patriotic Alliance's (PA) Gayton McKenzie is known for his grandstanding on immigration. One of his favourite activities is visiting foreigner-run spaza shops to check on the expiry dates of products. He is on the record as saying a PA government would deport illegal foreigners, build a wall all along South Africa's borders and shut all businesses that illegally employ foreigners. 

Then, there is ActionSA. Its position on immigration is stripped of populist hysteria but stemming the flow of illegal immigrants has been a central pillar since the party was established. Athol Trollip, the party leader in the Eastern Cape, says: “ActionSA has always maintained that South Africa was built on the back of migrants. We want the world's people to come to South Africa but they must do so legally. We stand very strongly for securing South Africa's borders and streamlining the visa processing system for skilled workers, among other measures."

These “other measures" include “improving the deportation process related to undocumented foreign nationals without a legitimate claim to residency or asylum in South Africa, and also foreign nationals found guilty of committing crimes in South Africa".

ANC is feeling the heat

The ANC government has not been impervious to ever-more fractious public sentiment around immigration.

The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) recently issued a draft white paper on citizens, immigration and refugee protection. 

I went through it with a fine-tooth comb. It is a breathtaking acknowledgement of the complete failure of successive ANC governments to run an effective immigration process.

These two admissions speak for themselves:  “No one can account for all undocumented migrants … [the] DHA has no idea as to how many illegal immigrants are in South Africa. However, Immigration Services deports between 15,000 and 20,000 illegal foreigners every year at a huge cost. This number is on the increase."

It proposes several iron-fisted proposals such as curtailing the rights of prospective refugees, restricting paths to citizenship and strengthening the Border Management Authority.

But there is almost no reference to recommendations about improving operations made in two high-level reports, one by the respected former director-general of the department, Mavuso Msimang.

These reports did not highlight the need for more kragdadige legislation but focused on fixing the unholy operational mess at home affairs — information systems that don't work, population databases that aren't integrated and massive, endemic corruption where the right price can fix most problems.

The fundamental problem, as it has always been, is the dysfunctionality of the permits and visa section of the department, yet the white paper mostly glosses over this.

It leaves the feeling that this legislative proposal that is so intensely focused on “overhauling" current laws is possibly more about the ANC government needing a narrative on immigration for this year's election than a serious attempt at addressing our hugely compromised, unstrategic, massively corrupt migration system.

The white paper suggests South Africa should potentially withdraw from the international treaty for refugee protection, saying it was a mistake not to cut back on asylum seekers' socioeconomic rights and it wants to make the pathway to citizenship more difficult. It also proposes establishing a range of new bodies — from immigration courts to an immigration board.

But in a recent paper on immigration policy, Hirsch argues that we don't need an overhaul of legislation to make immigration more difficult but modernisation of existing laws to encourage migrants to use official channels rather than follow the illegal route. The most important thing, he says, is to improve operations at home affairs.

Two reports

The rot goes back decades. I was a communication consultant on a turnaround intervention at home affairs in 2007. And even then, with the best operations management consultants in the world and astonishing improvements in services like IDs and passports, the permits and visa section remained curiously resistant to change — probably, in part at least, to the vested interests of those making money out of the broken system.

Home affairs is one of the critical pillars in South Africa's national security architecture yet two recent reviews outline in alarming detail how broken the immigration system is. 

The first, initiated by home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi, was headed by former cabinet secretary Cassius Lubisi. In 2022, it found a massive backlog in visa, permit and status applications. There was evidence of fraudulent applications being first rejected, then accepted, and the system being used illegally. The report made special mention of fraudulent marriages and cohabitation agreements being used as a path to citizenship. These shortcomings have nothing to do with lousy legislation and a lot to do with inefficiency and graft.

Msimang headed the second review, which found that 900,000 South Africans emigrated in 2020 — mainly to the UK and Australia — and that an effective visa system was needed to draw skilled people from elsewhere to replace them. However, “immigration patterns are characterised by unusually high barriers to crucially needed skilled immigration, with only small numbers of skilled foreign nationals being allowed in, while exposure to unwanted immigration remains high". 

Although Msimang's investigation did not look at unskilled labour migration, he made a critical point that underlies the whole debate — basically, that we should stop pussyfooting around the topic.

“The urgency of finding a solution to undocumented or illegal migration cannot be over-emphasised, especially in light of hardening attitudes against immigrants, including skilled ones, who are sorely needed to boost the country's embattled economy."

Possible fixes

The DA is outspoken about its opposition to the white paper, as is ActionSA: “The white paper fails to address the decay of the department and the reforms needed to improve its governance. ActionSA believes any policy proposal will fail without fixing and streamlining the department."

The party says home affairs should focus on making it easier for people with skills and capital to work, live and invest in South Africa, expand the number of countries whose citizens can visit without a visa, introduce and enforce fines for employing people without the right to work in South Africa, and address “the structural deficiencies at the Department of Home Affairs to ensure better enforcement of immigration regulations".

Hirsch points to a  different legislative issue that would help to transform the migration regime strategically and sensibly. He says there is an urgent need to modernise the colonial-style bilateral labour agreements South Africa has with  Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Botswana.

These countries and Zimbabwe, he says, are the greatest source of regular and irregular migration and the agreements are no longer fit for purpose. “Not only do they impose tight restrictions on the rights of contracted migrants from other countries, but they are also based on patterns of migrant labour developed during the colonial period to support farming and mining."

South Africa should look to examples of modern bilateral labour agreements found in the Canadian system. They provide long-term arrangements with full labour and social rights for the duration of the multiyear contract but no right to permanent residence for the workers or their families.

Modern Canadian-style migrant labour agreements, says Hirsch, would encourage more migrants to choose regular migration routes, and fewer would try to evade or abuse the law.

In conclusion

Orderly, properly managed immigration enriches societies. The chaotic and unregulated immigration in South Africa would tear at the social fabric of even the most stable of societies, which ours isn't. We live in one of the most unequal societies in the world, with searing poverty.

The disaffection with foreigners that constantly stirs like a restless beast below the surface  is not because South Africans intrinsically hate foreigners. There are many complex reasons for it but one of them is undoubtedly a deep-seated discomfort with the unmanaged, uncontrolled, free-for-all style of immigration that has developed in South Africa. And when people compete for scarce resources and job opportunities, this is a recipe for violent social conflict, as we have seen so often.

Who can forget the flare-up of xenophobic violence against foreign nationals in Durban before the 2019 elections? And here we are again with another election looming — one that promises to be the most hotly contested of the democratic era.

And make no mistake; illegal immigration will be a central election issue because it stirs deep-seated emotions and points to a monumental failure of successive ANC governments. 

♦ VWB ♦

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