Xenophobia Permeates All Levels Of South African Politics

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader, Julius Malema made news headlines a few weeks ago when he questioned whether former president Jacob Zuma’s children Duduzane and Duduzile Zuma could be regarded as South African because they had been born in Mozambique, and had stayed in Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Speaking on the radio, Malema said they can’t even speak any of the South African vernacular languages. He also implied during the interview that Duduzane Zuma was not a “proper” South Africa and it was for this reason he was involved in state capture because he was not loyal to the country.

“For Duduzane to leave the country, it’s very easy because they don’t have a history of settling in one place. Their loyalty and patriotism is not with South Africa, that’s why that boy could do as he wished because it’s not his country of birth, they were not born here,” he added.

Malema faced a backlash from many, including Tito Mboweni, the former Reserve Bank governor, who questioned what Malema would think about his children who were born in Lesotho.

This type of xenophobic sentiment from Malema was further echoed by the EFF’s chief whip Floyd Shivambu during the Eskom inquiry, during a hearing with the home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba.

Shivambu asked Gigaba why he took offence when asked questions about his nationality. In 2017, former member of the African National Congress (ANC), Vytjie Manor claimed that Gigaba was in fact Zimbabwean. Shivambu said that due to the allegations that Gigaba was not South African, he wanted to find out. Yet no answers were given as to why Shivambu’s questions mattered in an inquiry into Eskom’s financial mismanagement.

The line of questioning implied that Duduzane and Gigaba aided and abetted state capture for the Gupta family because they were “foreigners” and unpatriotic.

Shivambu took to Twitter to respond to accusations that his comments were xenophobia saying: “It isn’t xenophobic to ask the nationality of any African, it is xenophobic & self-hate to “take offence” when asked where were you born, mostly because the asked person dreads that they might be born in a different politically defined territory in Africa. Just respond the move on! [sic].”

However, the bigger issue remains as to why does it matter where Gigaba is from? The overemphasis that has been placed on citizenship and who is considered illegal and who is not reeks of xenophobia and bigotry. It is this type of attitudes at government levels that foster hatred and bias which filters down into the population.

On March 13, during the debate on accreditation of foreign trained doctors, the Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister for home affairs Haniff Hoosen said that South Africa is a master as attracting unskilled migrant workers even though we have a shortage of skilled labourers. Because the only good migrant is one who contributes something to the economy usually without any benefits in return, right?

Hoosen went on to say that the “employment of illegal and undocumented immigrants has a direct impact on our job creation abilities as a country and this is an area of focus that must be addressed.”

He said that the department of home affairs is failing to tighten borders and reduce undocumented immigrants. Hoosen said if borders are not tightened there will be a reduced number of skilled people coming into the country while unskilled undocumented workers will continue to arrive.

Even though this is just further proof of the South African government’s xenophobia, for Hoosen’s information, the government deported over 50 000 people in the 2014/2015 financial year alone. As writer, T.O Molefe pointed out on Twitter, this is hardly a “deluge” of immigrants as Hoosen claims.

Hoosen, on behalf of the DA, has not only called for unskilled labourers to be prevented entry and to make it easy for skilled workers to enter, he has also called for stronger sanctions for people who employ immigrants illegally.

So not only will immigrants have to endure terrible conditions in their journey to South Africa, leaving behind their countries for whatever reason but when they arrive in South Africa. They will literally find every door shut for them.

The DA’s statements are disingenuous because they seem to have been made without any background research being done regarding skilled and unskilled immigrant labourers. But looking at just one part of the argument raises interesting questions: the fact that skilled professions should be allowed into the country.

Recently, a PhD student Baraka Leonard Nafari, from the University of Johannesburg was killed by a taxi driver in what his family and friends have labelled a xenophobic attack. He was a skilled professional but was still killed because he was a “foreigner”. Putting value on immigrants lives to allow them to stay in the country is xenophobic! (and brings to mind a leader from across the pond who speaks about migrants from “shithole countries” being a strain on the economy)

This mindset says that only “useful” people should be allowed in and that if you are unskilled all you are doing is being a burden on the country’s economy and resources. When this institutional xenophobia propagated by those in positions of power is passed down to the people on the street, we have situations that arise like the one mentioned above. For the ordinary person they are unable to tell whether the immigrant is skilled or unskilled, and all they know is that the government and opposition is saying this person is a burden.

Shivambu raised one important point during his grilling of Gigaba when he said that everytime you go to home affairs you are subjected to questions about your nationality and where you were born. It is this institutional emphasis on nationality that can be seen as fundamentally xenophobic, especially because of the connotations associated with it. The statements by Malema, Shivambu, and the government operate under the idea that if you are a South African citizen you are good, loyal to the country, and should be the only people to be on the receiving end of benefits. If you do not hold a South African passport, then you are a non-person and not eligible for any benefits.

In February, Marc Gbaffou wrote for The Daily Vox about how home affairs is extremely xenophobic, especially when the department’s comments that asylum seekers coming to South Africa were not escaping war but were in fact young men looking for economic opportunities.

ADF: Home Affairs’ Comments On Asylum Seekers Are Xenophobic

He wrote about the harsh treatment and harassment that asylum seekers have to endure, and that the statements from the department shows where this institutional hate is coming from.

Gbaffou also wrote about the abuse that asylum seekers face at the Lindela Repatriation Centre. Lindela is the largest detention centre in South Africa for undocumented migrants, which for years has been attracting negative headlines for human rights violations and the bad treatment of immigrants.

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In 2014, the Mail & Guardian reported on the human rights violations that were taking place at the centre. There were reports that Nigerians were shot at with rubber bullets, many of the people were kept there for long periods of time in contravention of immigrant laws, and there was a lack of health care for the people being kept there.

At the time the Human Rights Commission also launched an investigation into what was happening at Lindela. The reports about the harassment and abuse of the people who are kept at the centre persist even though it was not been widely reported since 2015.

Is it any wonder that government-run facilities dealing with migrants would be accused of such despicable acts when the government and politicians continue to spew such hateful rhetoric about immigrants. The rights of immigrant, documented or undocumented, skilled or unskilled, need to be respected, on no other basis than the fact that they are human. If South Africa wants to continue holding onto some kind of moral high ground in international spaces, there is really no other path to go.

Politicians need to stop using migrants and suffering as a tool for politicking and to earn cheap political points. They need to start working to ensure the rights of immigrants are realised. People also need South African politicians to account and call them out on the bigotry in the case of the EFF because we cannot fight corruption and state capture by resorting to bigoted language.

Featured image by Pontsho Pilane