Hostile hosts and a forgotten history

2019, leading up to a national election, has had an unwelcoming beginning for non-nationals living in South Africa. Government officials in various departments have made streams of accusatory comments against them. People not born in but who consider their current home South Africa have fallen victim to blame for widespread corruption and mismanagement. This is an opportunist strategy by officials who fail to recognise the historical feature of migration in building the country they attempt to govern.

 

Migration from the SADC region has featured in South African history from the 1800’s, making black African migrants an intricate part of South Africa’s social, economic and political life.  A country that has been built and relied on migrant laborers is being seen to turn its back on the lives of many people who consider this place part of their understood home. Changes in migratory patterns have occurred post-1994, with migrants coming from further north on the continent, however these numbers are far fewer than the exaggerated figures described by officials.

 

The current global trend to respond to migration with further restrictions, hostility and from an attitude of fear is no different in South Africa. With election campaigns not shying away from this trend South Africa is seeing manifesto’s which call for ‘Secure Borders’ and the registration of a political party who’s main agenda is to ‘remove foreigners’. This hostility is becoming a normalised response to a historical and continued movement of people through the region.

 

The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) had a White Paper out for public comment in February 2019. DHA has and still prides itself on having a non-encampment policy for refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented

migrants. However, amendments to a progressive Refugee Act and A White 

Paper claiming efficiency are pushing for the implementation of processing centers at Ports of Entry (PoE). This has come into discussion while a simultaneous process of closing Refugee Reception Offices has been occurring since 2010. These proposed processing centers will result in people having to be kept at border posts until, and if, their documentation status is determined. The existing system for legalizing people’s stays in South Africa is in collapse. For those seeking protection and refuge from war and conflict, and others naturally seeking a better life and opportunities the road to being documented is treacherous. Closing Refugee Reception Offices, current backlogs, maladministration coupled with bribery manufactures illegality. It is not a matter of people wanting to be illegally in South Africa but a system that generates illegality. This is made clear in the recent White Paper which states that the mandate amongst other things is to be ‘citizen-focused’. This defies the notion that South Africa belongs to everyone who lives in it, as stated in the Freedom Charter.

 

Following on shortly from the White Paper a call for public comments was made for the Prevention and Combatting Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, a new Act enabling hate speech, including xenophobia, to be criminalized and for measures to be put in place to combat and prevent such crimes through national legislation. The timing of the call for comments of these policies bring into light the contradictory spaces we are working with. On one hand a department that is moving towards insititutionalizing discriminatory and restrictive policies based on someone’s origin. On the other hand, a proposal for a progressive piece of policy which could criminalize the rhetoric which so often uncovers itself behind policies of efficiency and regularization.

 

Policies to combat and prevent hate crimes such as xenophobia are valuable. Civil society should be the drive in using such tools for holding people accountable. However, until such a time a movement is waiting to be built which represents all those who live in South Africa: Migrants, both domestic and foreign, unrecognised asylum seekers and refugees. Only then will we realise that access to health care, education and social services are not burdened by ‘foreigners’ but by a system restraining what was granted to us all. As politicians and ministers plan for this election period historical reflection and empathy is required to know that the path to dignity knows no borders.

 

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