Tough times ahead for Zim migrants in South Africa


By Tapiwa Gomo

SOUTH Africa (SA) marked its 28th anniversary last week on  April 27 since gaining independence from the Apartheid system of government. The African National Congress (ANC) government must be credited for keeping things together up until now — a feat most African countries have failed to achieve.

It took only 20 years for things to fall apart in Zimbabwe and it has taken the same period of time, still counting, to establish an economic recovery path. Part of the reason is that our leadership has made elections and politics a major project over economic recovery. They are all about power and plunder and economic development is a language they use only during elections.

A simple thing as stabilising currency is a huge challenge for them, but they can win elections any day.

In those two decades, millions of people have left the country in search of economic opportunities. The fruits of the massive investment that went into educating our people are being enjoyed by neighbouring countries and overseas.

In the region, South Africa has become the easier destination due to its proximity and economic opportunities.

There was a time when the South African economy had a huge appetite for our labour because it was considered highly skilled, affordable, loyal and less problematic.

From the 1980s up until 2000s, it was almost guaranteed that when one crosses the border legally or illegally, they would get a job what would enable them to send money back home.

Cross border trading was also thriving. Traders crossed into SA to sell artefacts including doilies, carvings, handmade brooms and many other items. On their return, they used their earnings to buy electronic products for resale back home. Families were raised, houses were built and dreams were realised through this trade.

Today, the situation has changed. The Zimbabwe situation continues to worsen pushing more people out and cross the borders. The SA economic cake is getting smaller and overcrowded. South Africans are demanding their share of the cake.

Employers, who are largely white and have historically preferred to employ foreigners, are now under pressure to recognise that black South Africans need to be part of the economy.

The ANC government, which has been sympathetic to foreigners is feeling the heat and political losses for not acting.

They have blamed their recent poor performance in the local government elections partly on a weak policy on migration.

Though illogical, they blame the increasing unemployment rate on foreigners who they accuse of taking their jobs.

South Africa’s unemployment rate stands at more than 35%, the highest jobless rate since 2008.  The unemployment rate among youth of 15 and 24 years old is even higher at 67%.

Job losses were observed in several sectors, but mainly in manufacturing and construction sectors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Foreigners are also blamed for crime and other social ills.

Of course, not all foreigners are bad apples, but they are some who are up to no good.

Nonetheless, nothing is surprising on the scapegoating game. Most African governments resort to scapegoating when faced with political pressure to survive.

Our own government here blames everything that speaks against it including their own spouses. They evade responsibility and accountability. It is an easier way to survive political pressure even though it does not address the problems.

In November last year, the South African government announced that about 200 000 holders of the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit would expire by the end of this year. This is seen as an effort to deal with migrant labour and to create jobs or transfer jobs from foreigners to citizens.

It is a short-term solution to a bigger problem and it has been met with loud applause. It is a narrative that will definitely occupy space, come election campaign season next year. But will it really address unemployment and to what extent? Between eight and 10 million people are estimated to be in need of jobs in South Africa.

These policies have triggered waves of anti-migrants movements and clamp downs. One of these is Operation Dudula which translates to “force out” or “knock down” in the Zulu language.

It is a growing movement whose purpose is to flash out illegal migrants, but it has also resulted in deaths and injuries in areas hosting illegal migrants.

The government’s position on Operation Dudula remains unclear, the same way when the wave of war veterans in Zimbabwe hit commercial farmers in 2000.

Government ministers too have been on the ground to deal with the illegal migrants issue. They have unearthed several unorthodox practices by their own departments involving several other nationalities other than Africans.

These are nice and low hanging apples, but the migrant issue is deeper than that. It needs brutal honesty both domestically and regionally.

Domestically, immigration is a huge informal industry which generates millions of rands and it is good that the government is taking action. The economy needs to be opened up and expanded to create new economic opportunities — not just jobs. Regionally, the SA government needs to be tough on its neighbours.

They missed a chance to play a role in addressing the Zimbabwe situation in 2008 when they mediated ahead of the government of national unity. They continued to take sides with a party (Zanu PF) that is causing them problems.

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