[DEBATE] : Strangers in a Strange Land at the Mercy of Our Government
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Sun May 18 19:41:50 BST 2008
Site last Updated: May 18 2008 3:26PM
Strangers in a strange land at the mercy of our government
Published: May 18, 2008
Ignoring the foreigners in our country has come back to haunt us,
writes Rowan Philp
South Africans can live with poverty. In the first five years after
the millennium, a whole generation of poor grandmothers — particularly
in the Eastern Cape — single-handedly saved the economy from buckling
under the welfare cost of a million Aids orphans.
Often not realising they qualified for foster care or child support
grants, tens of thousands of the elderly poor chose to share their
paltry state pensions, give up their funeral plans and forfeit meat in
their diet to support two, five, even 10 orphans.
South Africans can even live with betrayal. During the 2004 general
elections in Mthatha — the city which has seen a failure of government
delivery above all others — I met a man who had been standing on the
same street corner for 15 years, hoping for a day's labour wage from
passing motorists. He said: "The ANC is like a wife who is being
unfaithful to you for a long time, with some rich guy. But if you love
a woman, you love her."
Make no mistake: despite the hideous images of xenophobia and violence
the country has seen this week, the poorest South Africans are the
best of us.
But what no South African can live with is injustice — or even the
merest perception of injustice.
The Democratic Alliance is wrong in its claims that the xenophobic
violence seen in Alexandra, Diepsloot and elsewhere this week was
triggered by an absence of service delivery. For 14 years, South
Africans have shown a Job-like tolerance for lack of delivery.
Instead, it is precisely when delivery does happen — and happen
visibly — that perceptions of injustice translate to violence.
In the Western Cape, it was only after the N2 Gateway housing project
began physical construction that major clashes broke out between poor
coloured communities and Xhosa migrants from the Eastern Cape. Even
longtime Xhosa residents of settlements such as Joe Slovo attacked the
domestic migrants as "outsiders", believing them to have jumped the
queue on the housing waiting lists.
And it was only after service delivery was fast-tracked in Khayelitsha
that neighbouring informal settlers began to seal off streets with
With the recent attacks on foreign migrants, the trigger is the same —
but the cause has nothing to do with the moral character of South
Africa's poor, as has been widely insinuated.
Instead, it's about the moral character of a government that has
provided no national response to one of the greatest emergency
migrations the world has seen in the past quarter century.
The Alexandra Renewal Project is both a staggering failure and a
remarkable success. Launched in 2001 as a way to provide homes to
22000 families and better living standards to everyone by 2008, this
"presidential lead project" has seen just 3000 families receive a new
roof over their heads in a township designed for 60000, but home to
The project has accelerated dramatically in the past two years, with
the erection of new schools, police stations and almost-completed
residential units, with a new focus which emphasises construction over
"soft projects" — specifically so residents would be able to see the
fruits of the grand plan. The plan worked too well.
Here is what really happened in Alexandra. The renewal project clears
shacks on a block-by-block basis to make way for new schools, sports
grounds and housing infrastructure.
Everyone displaced in this process is allotted a basic — and
supposedly temporary — house at a newly constructed "transit village".
South Africans who qualify for subsidies are quickly moved on from
there to their two- bedroom RDP houses. Undocumented migrants don't
qualify and are supposed to move from the transit camp into rental
units. The trouble was that the first batch of more than 500 rental
units weren't yet ready for occupation, and so migrants tended to stay
longer in the transit camp houses. To many South Africans still living
in shacks, it appeared as if migrants had been "given" the
smart-looking transit houses, or were there waiting for the completion
of "their" RDP houses in the new Extension 7.
It's hard to criticise the project managers for the general plan,
which is breathtakingly ambitious and makes no attempt to exclude
residents based on their legal status.
Except that, obviously, there was neither any planning to anticipate
the conflict trigger of sudden development, nor sufficient
communication to residents on how those who don't qualify for
subsidies might benefit.
Certainly, the project managers aren't to blame for the scale of the
violence and the bitterness of the xenophobia behind it. The
underlying cause of this is simply that more than four million
"illegal" foreigners — mostly desperate economic migrants from
Zimbabwe and Mozambique — have been allowed to flow into the country
with no national policy or plan in existence to deal with them.
This was the conclusion reached by the Forced Migration Studies
Programme at Wits in its recent report "Responding to Zimbabwean
Migration to South Africa", which stated: "The scale of the impact is
just as much the result of the lack of responses to the migration flow
as to the migration itself. The lack of a clear policy decision can
also lead to popular disaffection."
Worse, the individual plans that do exist to help or regulate
undocumented migrants have not been acted on.
For instance, migrants are eligible for the social relief or distress
grant, yet few, if any, have benefited from the plan.
All migrants living with HIV/Aids are entitled to antiretroviral
treatment, irrespective of their legal status, yet many healthcare
professionals turn them away through ignorance of the law.
The government is mandated to provide services to all unaccompanied
minors, including those here "illegally", yet the required programme
to assist thousands of these children "has not (been) implemented",
stated the report.
And, most significantly, up to one-third of migrants we see selling
wire animals on the road side, or begging, or allegedly forced into
crime, possess education or skills desperately sought in South Africa,
yet there has been no serious attempt to audit their skills and plug
them into the formal economy.
Only the Department of Education has cottoned on to this and has
allowed "illegal" Zimbabwean teachers of maths, science and English to
get on with their important jobs, rather than ignore or deport them.
The departments of Housing and Labour have not responded "at all",
according to the Wits report.
It added: "The Department of Health has made no effort to facilitate
recruitment of qualified Zimbabwean medical personnel who are already
in the country, in spite of a dire shortage of skills in this area."
Those who attack and persecute people based on their nationality and
alleged legal status should be prosecuted — and prosecuted
individually, without the shield of mob violence.
But if four million undocumented foreigners continue to be barred from
participating in South African society — in the absence of any public
policy which explains both their plight and value — then any success
they do enjoy will inevitably be seen as an injustice by South
Africans living in worse circumstances.
The legal solutions are varied but uniformly difficult. One among them
is a "temporary protection regime" for migrants, currently "under
consideration" by Home Affairs.
Others include temporary resident status and varying forms of "leave
to remain". Whichever form is chosen must encourage a fast-tracked
harnessing of migrant skills and the provision of financing for small
business, if only because xenophobia cannot survive where foreigners
create new jobs.
The authors of the Wits report suggest President Thabo Mbeki could be
forgiven for not taking the lead in a new national policy on
undocumented migrants, because of his current mediation role with
Robert Mugabe — the man perhaps responsible for the major part of the
But Mbeki has made himself the high guardian of undocumented migrants
by forcing millions to fend for themselves in a foreign land, and it
is exactly he who must now utter the word "Welcome' — and make sure
everyone hears it.
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