By Sehlule Sibanda and Chidochashe Nyere
The phenomenon of migration has existed with humanity since time immemorial. Migration on the African continent has also been part of our existence and survival. In South Africa particularly, African migrants are not a new phenomenon.
For instance, during the apartheid era African migrants were conscripted to work seasonally in mines and farms via the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA); in fact, in some African countries to date, South Africa is still referred to as “Wenela”, a corruption of the abbreviation of that conscription association.
Post-apartheid South Africa has always been welcoming to African migrants until recently with the influx of undocumented migrants, some of whom have been implicated in criminal activities. This has somewhat created fear in locals of illegal migrants who are viewed as posing a security threat in South Africa.
As such, there has been a securitisation of migrants, which has had a negative impact on the human security of particularly African migrants in the country, both documented and undocumented.
Securitisation is a concept that came to the fore in security studies in the Post-Cold War era at the Copenhagen School. The advocates of the concept, among them Ole Weaver, Barry Buzan and Jaap de Wilde, suggested that the elite securitise an issue by labelling it as a threat with the backing of an audience that accepts it.
Associated with securitisation is the speech act, through which the issue is portrayed as an existential threat that requires urgent attention, even if it means the abandonment of conventional measures and the adoption of normally extraordinary emergency measures. The concept was formulated as an analytical framework to describe the elite/state-centred securitisation, regardless of whether the threat is real or perceived.
This would suggest that optics and posturing are dynamics that are often at play in matters of securitisation. Thus, the migration issue has become a security threat in South Africa, because it has been structurally portrayed as such. This has been evident in the speeches and comments of key figures such as the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, and Home Affairs Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, who have blatantly blamed the high crime rate in the country on undocumented migrants, despite the crime statistics stating otherwise.
When pundits of the South African Constitution formulated it to facilitate the establishment of a rainbow nation, they never envisaged an African continent marred by perennial conflicts in countries such as the DRC, Central African Republic, and so forth. Neither did they imagine Zimbabwe, which used to be the bread basket of Africa, reduced to a basket case itself. All these developments have had a dire effect on this Southern African state, as it saw an influx of African migrants into the new democracy in search of refuge and/or greener pastures.
Associated with the idea of rainbow nation is the open border policy that has been in place since 1994, which did not only make it easy for African migrants to enter the country, but allowed them to be integrated into local communities, thereby creating pressure on the limited resources.
Furthermore, the porous borders facilitated the easy entry of some “undesired persons” who came into the country and got involved in criminality and illegalities, as their entry into the country would not have been captured by local authorities.
In recent years, several developments in South Africa have motivated the securitisation and scapegoating of migrants. The main development is the unfavourable economic conditions due to the rickety global economy, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Russo-Ukraine war, which has resulted in increased unemployment and crime rates in the country.
Some opportunistic politicians and government officials have shifted the blame for all these global socio-economic challenges on to migrants who have been blamed for stealing locals’ jobs and committing crimes in the country.
The scapegoating was exacerbated by populist political leaders such as Herman Mashaba of Action SA and Gayton McKenzie of the Patriotic Alliance (PA), who exploited the immigration crisis in the country and used it as a campaign tool in the recent Local Government Elections.
The duo pontificated that the country had been taken over by migrants and all the societal ills were due to too many undocumented foreign nationals. They called on citizens to reclaim their country, even if it means going into the communities and removing these illegal migrants forcefully.
Thus, in the months after the November local government elections, members of the PA were seen going into “foreign-owned” spaza shops in areas such as Eldorado Park, inspecting the expiry dates of food items and checking the validity of the documents of the owners of those shops. It was around that time that the vigilante groups such as Operation Dudula emerged and gained prominence as a strong anti-foreign force.
While this strategic move saw the PA and Action SA perform well in the November local government elections and cost the governing party several constituencies, the loss of the governing ANC sparked panic for the ruling elites. As such, extraordinary decisions were made by the Cabinet, which sought to make the government appear to be listening to the concerns on the ground, particularly on immigration.
The first to be sacrificed were the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP) holders, who had their permits cancelled abruptly. This is ironic, considering that the call on the ground is for the government to deal with the undocumented migrants.
How does undocumenting over 180 000 law-abiding migrants who are contributing to economic growth resolve the illegal immigration crisis? But of course, there is the issue of unemployment, which is believed could be solved by this move. However, for anti-foreign forces, this was a great victory, but one that had serious implications for Zimbabwean nationals in the country.
Not only are Zimbabweans who do not qualify for other mainstream visas, as advised by the Department of Home Affairs’ Minister, living on borrowed time, but the counter move by some Zimbabweans to reverse the Cabinet decision through the courts activated a strong anti-Zimbabwean sentiment among some locals, who have accused their neighbours in the country of entitlement.
Thus, the first quarter of 2022 saw a spike in attacks on Zimbabweans in many areas in the country, the highlight of the attacks being the mob killing of Elvis Nyathi in Diepsloot in April. Since then, social media platforms have been abuzz, with citizens of both countries exchanging insults and threats.
Government’s response to this friction has been counter-productive, particularly in the two key institutions, the Department of Home Affairs and the police, that are responsible for preventing, combating and investigating crime, maintaining public order and upholding and enforcing the law.
* Sehlule Sibanda is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Studies at UWC and Chidochashe Nyere is a research fellow at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.