VIOLENCE against Zimbabweans and other foreigners flared up in Johannesburgâ€™s Alexandra Township on Sunday as locals used whips and guns to attack foreign-born residents on Sunday.
Wire reports said two immigrants were killed and 40 others were sent to hospital after the attack. Several women were raped.
The governing African National Congress this week slammed the xenophobia calling on South African nationals to treat the violence as hate crimes. In a statement this week the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) attributed the xenophobia to “intolerable levels of poverty, unemployment, crime, and the shortage of housing in poor communities”.
It is true that unemployment and mounting poverty among South Africans at the bottom of the economic ladder have provoked fears of the competition that better educated and experienced migrants can represent.
Latest figures from Statistics South Africa show that unemployment in the country is considered high at 23% as of September last year. With an estimated three million illegal immigrants in South Africa, competition for space and resources is a key causative factor of xenophobia.
But then the phenomenon should not be viewed in the context of running battles in the townships and illegal settlements. Xenophobia has also been viewed in the context of Zimbabweans and other nationalities who are repatriated or those in holding camps waiting to be sent back home.
The danger with this view is that it negates other subtleties in the debate around the subject. A report by the United Nations Human Rights Commission Special Rapporteur on racism, discrimination and xenophobia in South Africa in 1998 cautioned against forced repatriation of immigrants.
“The repatriation of illegal persons to their own countries is clearly an ineffective means of dealing with illegal immigration. The measure is purely a short-term one which takes no account of regional economic disturbances, economic factors being the main cause of immigration into South Africa,” the report said.
This was before the influx of Zimbabweans illegally crossing the Limpopo into South Africa in search of employment and fleeing persecution at home. This recommendation by the UN has resultantly been mothballed.
The enforcement of immigration laws in South Africa in many instances presupposes that Zimbabweans there are illegal immigrants who should be screened at every opportunity hence it is not surprising for a professional to be stopped by a policeman on the street and asked to produce a passport. This manner of dealing with the immigration problems appear to disregard the fact that South Africa requires Zimbabwean skills and no amount of xenophobia can erase this phenomenon.
Recent research has shown that South Africa, despite its high unemployment stats, still lacks crucial skills. The research says the fast-growing information technology sector has at least 70 000 vacancies, which should reach 114 900 by 2009. The education sector is also expected to face a shortage of up to 35 000 teachers by 2008, while more than 5 000 expatriate engineers are required in the energy sector. More engineers and artisans are required in South Africa to build infrastructure for the 2010 soccer World Cup.
The South African government could be worried that rising xenophobia and related violence against foreigners could hurt its ability to attract skills. But at the same time it has to address an immigration problem that is growing bigger as the crisis in Zimbabwe deepens.
This is a difficult balancing act for a country whose cash registers are filled with monies brought in by foreign traders daily.
“South Africa would not be the centre for continental trade if it was not for the influence of the immigrants. The retail sector is expanding because of the large volume of continental customers arriving daily,” said Jacob van Garderen, a researcher with the Refugee and Migrant Project of South African Lawyers for Human Rights.
Like most countries in this invidious position, South Africa will at the end of the day welcome useful immigrants who assume the glorified collective name of expatriates and be less generous when dealing with the less useful ones â€” the economic refugees.
In European countries immigrants were welcomed with open arms to do certain menial work which the locals held in contempt. The immigrants mainly from Eastern Europe have become part of the society and are respected in their own right for their industry. One thinks of the Poles in Britain.
Can Zimbabweans who are prepared to work on farms in South Africa and Botswana be recognised in the same light?
Perhaps yes, because immigrants into this country from Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique 50 years ago came in to do not-so-glorious jobs on the farms, in municipalities as cleaners and others worked as domestic servants. They were accepted here because they were willing to do these jobs which locals were disparaged.
The tide has turned on the Zimbabweans and our professionals are today prepared to scrub floors and tend gardens across the borders. We have gone the full circle because of the crisis at home.