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Tafi Mhaka: Will Zimbabweans survive South Africa’s anti-immigrant drive?

By Tafi Mhaka

South Africa’s strong and extensive ties with Zimbabwe are buckling under the strain of COVID-19 economic challenges and migration.

Tafi Mhaka is a Johannesburg-based writer and commentator. His debut novel, Mutserendende: The African in Us, is scheduled for release in 2020. Follow him on @tafimhaka / tafi.mhaka
Tafi Mhaka is a Johannesburg-based writer and commentator. His debut novel, Mutserendende: The African in Us, is scheduled for release in 2020. Follow him on @tafimhaka / tafi.mhaka

The nearly 500 undocumented migrants arrested on a daily basis trying to enter South Africa, through extremely dangerous and illegal entry points along the Limpopo River, bear witness to the severity of irregular migration and the mayhem Zimbabwe is experiencing.

However, it is not just undocumented migrants that are routinely deemed problematic and unwanted: South Africa’s shared determination to accommodate even documented and skilled migrants is fairly limited. A survey published by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in October 2020, reports that 26% of South Africans strongly oppose migrants and 54% had somewhat mixed feelings on refugees, asylum-seekers and cross-border migrants.

The HSRC states that negative stereotypes about cross-border migrants and refugees are common in many towns and villages, with people describing these groups as violent and dishonest. This anti-immigrant sentiment is reportedly fuelled by the implicit (and explicit) link that is made, in public discourse, between migration and social problems or jobs.

Many people, adds the HSRC, do not understand that immigration is economically beneficial for the South African economy. The maligned migrants stand accused of working for low wages, “stealing jobs” from locals and thwarting affirmative action programmes. To be sure, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has brought anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions to the fore of South Africa’s social conscience.

Last November, uMkhonto we Sizwe military veterans shut down businesses owned by immigrants in Durban. Ongoing protest actions against the employment of foreign drivers in the trucking industry have repeatedly escalated into extreme violence and sometimes deaths. The South Africa First party is calling for the mass deportation of undocumented migrants and it is promoting the notorious #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag on social media.

Similarly, the African Transformation Movement stands against migrants obtaining low-skilled jobs and running businesses in townships. Former Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba launched ActionSA, a new political party with a hard anti-immigrant stance in August 2020. And both the Gauteng Provincial government and South Africa’s national government have drafted laws to restrict foreigners from working in certain economic sectors and operating businesses in townships.

This suggested legislation will affect African migrants, and by sheer numbers alone, plenty of Zimbabweans. Many of the estimated 1.5 million Zimbabweans residing in South Africa run small businesses and work in the hospitality sector, restaurants, construction, security, farming and agriculture. Needless to say, the extensive and highly inordinate focus on migrants, amid 2.2 million job losses and general economic uncertainty, might spell trouble in a country with a history of deadly xenophobic attacks.

Migrants are not to blame for South Africa’s fragile economy, the high unemployment rate, the housing shortage, service delivery challenges or high crime rate, but that inconvenient truth is often lost in the rush to publicly cast overt and subtle aspersions on foreigners for political gain. This, unfortunately, is the underlying irony of an endlessly dreadful situation: on the one hand, the ruling ANC government feels obliged to remain staunchly impractical and “patriotic” about past glories and Zanu-PF’s misrule.

On the other hand, it plans to shun the overwhelmingly desperate victims of Zanu-PF’s authoritarianism and maladministration, to shut out the “ugly spectre” of poor African migrants and to ostensibly shoo away Zimbabwe’s discernible problems. Consequently, 2021 might be the last year that Zimbabweans get substantial support from South Africa. In 2010, South Africa granted around 250 000 business, work and student permits to Zimbabwean nationals, and renewed them over the years.

In 2017, South Africa issued the Zimbabwean Exemption Permits (ZEP). Regrettably, the ZEPs expire on 31 December 2021, and the South African government has not indicated whether it will renew the facility. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, and there is a chance it won’t. Not in the current political and economic climate.

If it decides to not renew the ZEPs and passes a law restricting the employment of foreigners in designated sectors, Zimbabweans will be hard hit.
The ZEP recipients and their families would have to endure massive financial challenges and possibly return home to an uncertain future in a poverty-hit Zimbabwe.

Last September, ANC secretary general ANC Ace Magashule emphasised that there is no political crisis in Zimbabwe – despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. How this grossly imprecise assessment will play out in the South African government’s decision to renew or cancel the ZSP facility is unclear.

What’s certain is Zimbabwe’s situation remains tenuous at best, and the ruling Zanu-PF party has long failed to provide a decent measure of economic stability.

At some point, soon, Zimbabwe has to get its act together and stop making excuses for its extensive economic failures and political instability.

Clearly, in the post-COVID-19 era, large numbers of Zimbabwean migrants, skilled or unskilled, documented or undocumented, looking for economic opportunities, might not be welcomed anywhere in the SADC region, especially in South Africa.

Tafi Mhaka is a Johannesburg-based writer and commentator. His debut novel, Mutserendende: The African in Us, is scheduled for release in 2021. Follow him on @tafimhaka / tafi.mhaka