The article first appeared in the Thought Leaders blog of the Mail & Guardian
The South African government will soon be in the country’s high court because petitioners from countries like Nigeria, Malawi and Zambia are displeased by the spate of xenophobic attacks and murders of migrants from their countries. These attacks and deaths have also sparked the #WeAreAfrica hashtag on social media, a 30 000 person march in Johannesburg, and a May Day march by the international civil-rights group Neo-Black Movement of Africa.
Since the end of apartheid and South Africa’s rise in regional power, there has been an increase in migration from other African countries. Similar to immigrants in other parts of the world, including some European countries, they have not always been welcomed in South Africa. In 2008 there were a series of attacks that included the death of 60 people. The attacks were blamed on high unemployment, high crime, corruption and inept foreign policy. Not much has changed.
In March, President Jacob Zuma’s son Edward claimed foreigners were “taking over the country” and raised the possibility of a coup. At a rally in late March, Goodwill Zwelithini, king of the Zulu nation, reportedly told supporters, “We urge all foreigners to pack their bags and leave”. Coupled with that, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe recently suggested that all undocumented migrants would have to be moved to refugee camps for processing before they are let into the country.
Of course, these attacks are just the extreme of ongoing discrimination in the country, something I have felt first-hand as a Kenyan visiting, even though I am not a migrant. I have travelled in many parts of the world, but even though I have faced discrimination in other countries, my experiences in South Africa remain some of the most unforgettable. They have ranged from being denied entrance to restaurants, to being denied luxury items I wished to purchase at shops. The discrimination has come from both white and black South Africans, leaving me with a sense of belonging nowhere.
One of the most blatant experiences I had was when I was harassed at an airport in Johannesburg and bluntly told by a black South African immigration official that I was going to take opportunities from his people and they didn’t want me there. But I was only in the country to attend a conference for a few days!
In a country where many of the foreigners are educated and skilled, discrimination and physical attacks against them threatens the fabric and long-term growth of the country. A report from the Migration Policy Institute found that “immigration unambiguously improves employment, productivity, and income,” especially when an economy is growing. In South Africa, a study found that at the national level, employment is not negatively impacted by immigration.
When we look at other countries, immigrants have helped economies, from the US to Botswana.
Arguably, the US has continued to dominate the world economy for years due to immigration. Immigrants started 28% of all new US businesses in 2011, employing one in 10 US workers. They represent 18% of small business owners and are more likely than those born in the US to start a small business. Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies and 60% of America’s top 25 tech companies were founded by first or second-generation immigrants. Of course, like South Africa, there are some who resist immigrants to the US and want to treat them poorly or keep them out. But overall, policies are in place to help legal immigrants and their positive impact on the economy cannot be denied.
Closer to South Africa, Botswana’s gross domestic product consistently increased and averaged 6.1% annually between 1966 to 1995 when it turned from a migrant-sending country to a migrant-receiving country. Earlier on, Botswana was ranked among the world’s 20 poorest countries, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Botswana’s rapid economic growth in the 1970s required labour and expertise, and the government implemented an open migration policy where foreign nationals were recruited from across the continent. Foreign workers were offered competitive salaries, subsidised housing, cars, health insurance and free education for expatriate children. As the number of legal non-nationals increased from 10 861 in 1971 to 60 716 by 2001, an all-inclusive economy was being built.
Of course South Africa’s unique history means it’s not perfectly comparable to these countries and the government needs to do more to create economic opportunities for native South Africans, as the Rwandan government did after the genocide. Their government prioritised creating economic opportunities for them and the number of businesses started by Rwandese citizens has significantly increased. That tactic could work in South Africa too, as long as it does not further separate migrants and devalue their worth.
Further, South Africa could benefit from a clearer immigration policy, and one that also works to de-racialise the labour force. I stand with the countries petitioning the South African government as they use the court system to try to force better policies and protections for immigrants. We are all brothers and sisters and we can complement each other’s skills and expertise to build a truly united and prosperous Africa, where each person feels secure and has access to basic needs and services.
Evans Wadongo is a Kenyan engineer, the co-founder of GreenWize Energy Ltd, the executive director and founder of SDFA-Kenya, and one of CNN’s top 10 heroes of 2010. He is also a 2014 Aspen Institute New Voices fellow.