'Mean Streets' is the pointedly ironic title of a new book on what is doubtless the mainstream migrant experience in cities like Cape Town. Picture: Cindy Waxa
'Mean Streets' is the pointedly ironic title of a new book on what is doubtless the mainstream migrant experience in cities like Cape Town. Picture: Cindy Waxa

Industrious migrants are an opportunity for SA

By Michael Morris Time of article published Jan 13, 2016

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Migrants making their way in the burgeoning informal economy are here to stay, and that’s better for the country than policymakers acknowledge, a new book argues.

Mean Streets is the pointedly ironic title of a new book on what is doubtless the mainstream migrant experience in cities like Cape Town where, for all the opportunities not available in Kinshasa, Harare or Mogadishu, life is at once rewarding and perilous.

There’s a good living to be made for those who make the effort – and migrants have a well-earned reputation for hard work and resourcefulness – but success can be costly, too.

Means Streets, edited by Jonathan Crush, Abel Chikanda and Caroline Skinner – and published jointly by the Southern African Migration Programme, UCT’s African Centre for Cities and the International Development Research Centre – opens with a telling account of a 2012 police campaign in Limpopo.

It was launched ostensibly to arrest criminals and tackle illicit activities in the province.

In practice, the editors write, “this crusade... targeted small informal businesses run by migrants and refugees”.

Six hundred businesses were closed down, the stock confiscated, and the owners detained and showered with fines and verbal abuse.

Some appealed and won their case in the Supreme Court – but the environment of hostility in which these and other migrants across the country function was underscored by the fact this appeal was opposed by all three tiers of government.

The campaign, the appeal and the official response reflect essential characteristics of the migrant experience: the resilience of migrants in exploiting opportunities against the odds, not least formal state actions that implicitly lend credence to the popular xenophobic and, now and then, lethal fallacy that foreigners are parasitic and by their presence deny jobs or opportunities to South Africans.

Crush, Chikanda and Skinner write: “A central premise of the hostility towards ‘foreigners’ in South Africa is that they ‘steal’ jobs from South Africans.”

A 2010 survey suggested 60 percent of South Africans subscribed to this view.

The authors (besides the first chapter written by the three editors, Mean Streets features the work of 22 other contributing researchers) cite a range of studies that reveal a pattern of migrant business owners creating jobs for South Africans through direct hire.

Also, far from being “disconnected from the formal economy”, migrant entrepreneurs, like their non-migrant counterparts, were “integrally linked to the formal economy and contribute to it significantly” through sourcing goods and services and paying VAT.

Furthermore, successful migrant businesses were good for poor consumers, too – through their aggressive price competitiveness, offering a greater variety of goods in flexible quantities (being prepared to sell a single egg instead of a box, say, or a small plastic pouch of sugar instead of a kilogram packet), and offering credit, particularly to pensioners.

Yet, perversely, policymaking, far from stimulating and seeking to exploit the benefits of migrant entrepreneurialism, actively discourages migrant participation in the economy.

The book examines the 2013 draft Licensing of Businesses Bill and the associated 2014 National Informal Business Upliftment Strategy and finds both wanting.

The bill, the writers argue, “would result in large-scale criminalisation of current informal activities, both South African and migrant-owned”.

Crush, Chikanda and Skinner conclude their introductory chapter by noting that Mean Streets “powerfully demonstrates... that some of the most dedicated and resourceful entrepreneurs in the South African informal economy are migrants to the country” and that while “under any other circumstances, they would probably be lauded as exemplars of small-scale and micro-entrepreneurship”... the state and many citizens “view their activities as undesirable simply because of their national origins”.

Consequently, “harassment, extortion and bribery... are some of the daily costs of doing business” for entrepreneurs who “face constant security threats and enjoy minimal protection from the police”, have to contend with often hostile municipal regulations and lack of infrastructure and battle to gain access to skills training or financial services.

“As a result, migrant entrepreneurs are unable to utilise their entrepreneurial skills and experience fully and grow their businesses, and thus contribute to the economy in an optimal fashion.”

These are circumstances, Mean Streets asserts, that call for much more creative policymaking.

On one hand, the state and the public had to accept that “neither the informal economy nor migrants will go away” and attempts to remove either “will simply force their activities underground, but only for a period, generating significant hardship in the process”.

On the other hand, it would be smarter for South Africa to focus instead on making it easier for all people to engage in the informal economy, to actively encourage skills transfers between migrants and South Africans, and to nurture an integrated informal sector that would be better able to generate jobs and economic activity.

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