Mosibudi Mangena cites the failure by South African authorities to address genuine public concerns, as a pivotal factor to recent upheavals, rather than xenophobic or afrophobic tendencies
The recent ugly community upheavals in Rosettenville and Tshwane have once more ignited the debate on whether South Africans are afrophobic or not. As I have written during previous episodes of the same phenomenon, I don’t think we are any more afrophobic than our brothers and sisters elsewhere on our continent.
Those of us who have lived in exile on our continent can attest to the fact that the only difference between us and the other countries is that we are more inept in many aspects of state function than they are. We are now harvesting the fruits of our ineptitude.
Have we ever asked ourselves why our neighbouring countries, such as Botswana and Zimbabwe, who have been managing refugees and other migrants much longer than us, have not had any unrest of the nature we have seen in South Africa? The difference is that our neighbours are able to manage refugees, migrants, labour and crime much better than we do.
There are many African workers employed in the media, engineering, insurance, tertiary education, hospitality, construction, banking and many other fields of human endeavour in South Africa without any ructions. There are thousands of students from the continent happily studying in almost all of our universities without any hostility from their South African brothers and sisters.
The problem lies with poor migrants who arrive in the country, for the most part without skills or a clearly defined purpose. Because they have no accommodation, money nor a job, they are forced to go and compete with South Africans for low paying jobs, informal trading, and space for a shack or a room in dilapidated buildings in our cities. What we have here is a conflict over scarce resources by the poor and a failure by the state to manage the situation.
The weakness of the state in this regard is on multiple levels:
Firstly, we need effective and efficient immigration control that does not stomach overstaying or abuse of visas. You can be assured that it is very difficult to overstay in countries like Botswana and Zimbabwe. If you did, their immigration officials and police would be searching for you high and low.
Secondly, asylum seekers should be processed quickly and those who do not qualify for refugee status should be deported forthwith. Those that qualify for refugee status should be given housing and a stipend for survival. That could stop once they have found a job. Otherwise, how do we expect refugees without money and housing to survive in our country? The unmanaged competition for basic resources with our own needy citizens causes the conflict that is giving our country a bad name.
Maybe we would not pause to learn from the experiences of countries like Botswana because we imagine we are exceptional. Well, that perceived South African exceptionalism is seriously harming our relations with the rest of the continent.
Thirdly, there is a need to clean up our criminal justice system. Communities say they have complained ad infinitum to the police about drug dealing, prostitution and brothels in their areas to no avail. And when the affected communities take matters into their own hands, sometimes clumsily and unprofessionally, they are accused of afrophobia.
All that is required is for the police to take action against whoever is involved in these sordid and harmful activities. It should not matter whether those involved are South African citizens or nationals of other countries. Crime is crime. It has no nationality.
With proper policing and prosecution of the deserving culprits, we would not have had the Rosettenville and Mamelodi mayhem. None of us would quarrel with the residents of these areas for wanting to bring up their children in an environment free of ubiquitous drugs and rampant prostitution.
You just need to walk or drive around Rosettenville to appreciate the concerns of the residents. It is of course out of order to accuse foreign nationals in general for the problem.
Fourthly, the state machinery should regulate, monitor and manage the labour regime in the country. Because non-citizen workers are disinclined to complain or belong to trade unions, and therefore easier to control, some employers prefer workers from other countries.
Of course in other instances, the migrant workers are more skilled than South Africans. You need only visit restaurants, hotels, building sites and similar places to appreciate the magnitude of the problem. This leads to understandable friction in a country where unemployment is as high as it is. The phenomenon also has the effect of distorting the wage regime in the country since vulnerable foreign workers are more likely to accept lower pay than locals.
During our exile days in Botswana, employers had to demonstrate that there is no suitable Motswana to fill a vacancy before a foreign national could be employed. Even if we do not adopt this Botswana policy, we should have mechanisms to ensure that there is fairness in our labour market to protect both foreign and South African workers. Failure to do so leads to unnecessary resentment and conflict in our society.
So, South Africans are not afrophobic. It is the ineptitude of the state on multiple fronts that is letting both citizens and migrants down.
*Mosibudi Mangena is South Africa’s former Minister of Science and Technology and served as President of the Azanian People’s Organization.