The Western world is not the only place where migrants are fuelling local tensions.

It’s that time of the year again when South Africans find themselves in arms with migrants over employment opportunities. Although it is a grotesque narrative, this has been the reality for many years.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures?

In 2008, the situation was so bad that scores of migrants lost their lives after having been set alight, shot and stabbed. However, after heavy criticism from local civic organisations, the government and the international community, South Africans have now done away with the killing sprees in favour of ‘non-hostile’ means of ‘taking their jobs back’, as so many claim.

To understand this response, one needs to appreciate South Africa’s unemployment rate. The graduate unemployment rate for 15-24-year-olds is over 40 per cent, and over 15 per cent for those aged 25-34. However, the country’s high youth unemployment rate does not justify the victimisation and harassment of migrants.

Illegal operations are carried out by political parties and self-proclaimed right-wing groups such as Soweto Parliament, Economic Freedom Fighters and the Patriotic Alliance. These groups illegally check the employment ratios of migrants to South Africans leading, in some cases, to migrants being given notices to vacate their stalls and leave the country or risk stiff repercussions.

Some South Africans have since joined the wave of illegal evictions under the banner #PutSouthAfricansFirst. Many are now sceptical that the operations might trigger another 2008 scenario if the situation is not brought under control.


Sarah Motha, Vulnerable Groups Program Manager at Foundation for Human Rights had this to say:

‘We are of course worried and tense as many foreigners now appear under siege. Events that have taken place these last few days are extremely alarming, but fortunately, it is not the generality of South Africans that are instigating the new wave of xenophobia that we have seen in some parts of Gauteng and other areas. It is certain political opportunists and instigators, some of whom have openly stated that all foreigners unless they are brain surgeons have to be removed from communities and sent back to their countries. We view these statements as extremely inflammatory and irresponsible.

In addition, we urge the government to immediately constitute a stakeholders forum to work on a defined project of lasting social cohesion, including recalling recommendations from the most significant policy document the country has in dealing with xenophobia — namely, the National Action Plan to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances. We call on opposition political parties to issue statements denouncing self-help and Afrophobia’.

As Sarah explains, the events are largely restricted to the Gauteng province, particularly in Johannesburg’s Soweto township. The term ‘Afrophobia’ refers to the focus of hese operations on African migrants.

What Solutions are Available?

Some South Africans feel that the best remedy is to remove all migrants, particularly those that are African — whether illegal or legal — and send them back to their home countries.

According to Sarah, despite the fact that some migrants are believed to contribute to the increased violence in the country, the government should ensure there is social cohesion between South Africans and migrant groups.

Sarah: ‘There is a need to ensure that violence towards migrants is prevented. Where there are violent attacks, urgent access to healthcare must be provided regardless of documentation status. An atmosphere of hostility towards migrants can exacerbate existing challenges in seeking and also accessing care. Ultimately, this makes it difficult to address wider public health concerns, including Covid-19.

Pursuit of a humane, dignified existence should not be the prerogative of someone holding a specific passport. Legal channels must be provided for all those who seek to move in accordance with international humanitarian law. This includes access to preventative and curative health services, as well as access to chronic, life-saving medication’.

Perhaps one solution could be a quota system. Africa’s persistent socioeconomic upheavals mean that migrants will always try to find their way into South Africa. Within the space of just two years Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso have all seen coups. Many of the people residing in these countries have either run away or are thinking of doing so in the hope of seeking better opportunities. South Africa just happens to be their best socioeconomic prospect.

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