South Africa and foreign labour

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South Africa and foreign labour

By Tapiwa Gomo

THE unemployment rate in South Africa hit a new record high of nearly 35% in the third quarter of 2021 which some allege had an influence on the African National Congress (ANC) dismal performance in last year’s local government elections.

For the first time since 1994 — when South Africa attained independence — the ANC garnered less than 50% — in fact 46% — of the vote marking its worst result in 27 years.

The ruling ANC has responded to this, partly by targeting foreigners who the ruling party and others accuse of many things including taking jobs and economic opportunities from locals, illegal migration, crime, drug dealing and all sorts of ills.

Some special permits have been scrapped.

It is not a new phenomenon that when a party in power is under pressure, it seeks to scapegoat.

In Zimbabwe, the Zanu PF party blamed foreign interference as justification for careless policies whose result were destruction of the economy and giving rise to corrupt behaviour that has stunted the growth of our economy for two decades.

With that high unemployment rate and a loss in votes, it is expected that the ANC leadership would respond in the manner they did to regain political support.

The response is either political or strategic.

And it seems the ANC has opted for the political route — one premised on the assumption that the unemployment rate will decline if foreign labour is reduced from the market.

It is an assumption because if the ANC support base had not declined in the 2021 local government elections, the link between foreigners and a high unemployment rate was not going to be politically material.

Before addressing how the market in South Africa has historically absorbed so many foreigners over a century, it is important to start with a disclaimer.

It is not in question that some foreigners have become a burden to that country with some involved in all manner of ills.

However, the largest group is that involved in businesses and employment with some brought into the country by the South African markets.

This takes us to the history of foreign labour in South Africa.

Available literature tells us that as far back as 1880s, when gold deposits — to become the most extensive in the world —  were discovered in South Africa, the use of local labour was problematic at the onset as most young black men opted to be part of local armies marking the long-standing tensions between the white settlers and indigenous communities.

The tensions between the two were not seen as fostering production in the growing mining and other emerging sectors and that partly sowed the seed of what later became apartheid.

On the other hand, if large-scale mining and exploitation of other economic opportunities was to be conducted, it became important to have manual labour in large numbers.

And that spawned a myriad of labour associations mainly to bring foreign labour into the mines and later in farms.

Mozambique was among the first and closest supplier of labour in the mines, mainly those who had experience from other parts of the country and the continent.

By 1901, after the Anglo-Boer war,  the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA) otherwise popularly known as Wenela became the major player in labour supply.

It was set up by the gold mines as a recruiting agency for migrant workers.

With the growth of the mining industry and more deposits being discovered, the WNLA became a huge organisation with its own depots, buses and aeroplanes spread over the whole of southern Africa and extending into east Africa.

Some historical records show that WNLA’s tentacles spread beyond Africa into Asia and Europe looking for specialised labour.

It must be noted that the majority of those, who were brought to South Africa as foreign labour, did not return to their countries of origin.

They settled in the towns and cities that sprouted across the country and their families were absorbed into the new industries and are part of the South African society today.

It is the same people who had access and enjoyed basic services, facilities and economic opportunities while the local black population remained on the margins as they fought racial oppression.

The point to note here is that white settlers have never intended to absorb local black people into the economy — a scenario that persists today.

A combination of a rising African liberation movement, the great depression and World War II ushered increasing economic challenges to South Africa in the 1940s.

And just like governments today, the response was to scapegoat by strengthening  racial segregation policies.

The National Party election victory in 1948 marked the beginning of legalised racial segregation otherwise known as apartheid whose goal was to separate white minority from the non-white majority, non-whites from each other and to divide indigenous black South Africans along tribal lines as a way of neutralising their political power.

And again in all these political dynamics, foreign labour — whether African or non-African — remained protected partly because it was never seen as a political threat to settler interests and instead was seen as the necessary engine of economic production.

That notion has continued into the new independent South Africa as white employers view foreigner labour less of a political threat and affordable.

Clamping down on foreigners is a low-hanging political fruit with marginal short-term employment gains, but a long-term and strategic response to the high unemployment rate is required.

Part of that strategic response involves concerted efforts to establish a new black African economy that may build on the existing one but with the ultimate goal of building an entrepreneurial culture that does not depend on employment.

That begins with strengthening basic education and a tertiary system that includes establishing vocational training centres to equip youth with productive skills to create their own employment.

  • Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.