Twodros Teferi from Ethiopia standing outside his building, Delvers Square in Johannesburg in 2012. File picture: Mujahid Safodien/Independent Media
Johannesburg – Most foreign nationals seeking a better life in South Africa make it through sheer hard work and sacrifice towards an improved life that had been denied back in their own countries, a report by the Institute of Race Relations released on Monday showed.

Titled 'South Africa's Immigrants - Building a New Economy', IRR researcher Rian Malan said his research showed how most migrants succeed in South Africa, sometimes through good business acumen and ability to start from scratch and move up.

Political repression or wars, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe push its citizens to South Africa, whose relatively strong economy was attractive to them.

Malan used three case studies of Somalis taking over the spaza shop business in townships, Zimbabweans waiting tables and managing restaurants in Johannesburg and the mushrooming of trading in the Johannesburg CBD started by Ethiopians at a time when municipal authorities neglected the inner city.

The immigrants' strong networks ensured that their fellow country men accessed opportunities as well when the arrive in the country. They also have to start from the bottom, and sometimes work for their already successful countrymen for just meals "until they had paid the debt" and then start earning to work their way up, the report showed.

"The stories raise fundamental questions about the truth of these beliefs [on immigrants]. All are black, using the broad definition favoured by Pan-Africanists. As such, they must face exactly the same forms of discrimination as black South Africans, and many additional obstacles besides rampant xenophobia, a banking industry that is unwilling to open accounts for them and a government that denies them all manner of benefits available to black South Africans... including state subsidies for black entrepreneurs and participation in preferential procurement schemes that require formal sector businesses to place a portion of their orders with black suppliers," said Malan.

"And yet, foreigners make it here. Some of the stories told here might convey the misleading impression that all migrants are pulling R20 000 a month as waiters in posh restaurants, or buying inner-city buildings with suitcases full of cash. These are exceptional cases...but the literature demonstrates that foreigners are more likely to be working than South Africans... and in the few cases where data is available, earning more than their South African counterparts."

He said the immigrants achieve in a foreign country such as South Africa as they come with a "radically different" attitude towards work, born out of desperation.

Malan added that a survey conducted in 2008 showed that 80 percent of South Africa’s unemployed were also desperate for work and willing to start for very little, provided there was some prospect of advancement in the long run.

"But 62 percent said this got them nowhere, because there were simply no jobs available. Foreigners dispute this claim, contending that there are all sorts of opportunities here for those willing to start at the bottom or create work for themselves."

It was not too late for South African government to listen to what immigrants have to say and lessons they might have, said Malan.

He recalled Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu's statement two years ago, who was criticised after saying that black people were never part of the economy and that when they see foreigners being successful, they feel stifled. Zulu suggested that foreigners share with South Africans about their success.

"Under these circumstances, it’s surprising that foreign traders have survived at all, let alone prospered to an extent where they can challenge 'white domination in certain arenas. Their success is testimony to a rare triumph of the human spirit, and the endurance of allegedly outmoded values like hard work and perseverance," he said.

"As Lindiwe Zulu intuited, they have something important to tell is not too late to listen This was taken to be xenophobic and Ms. Zulu was duly savaged. But this report takes the view that she was posing an entirely legitimate question, and that an answer is called for."