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Media release: Expert roundtable

Media release | Stellenbosch University | 16 May 2022

Expert roundtable on social justice, economic inclusion, and immigration

  • Issues of immigration have become hugely divisive, with South African politicians mining conflict while ordinary citizens scramble for resources.
  • Liaise with Marna Lourens at and 021 808 3186 for more information.

South Africans are not inherently a xenophobic nation, but we are vulnerable to abuse and manipulation by politicians and leaders with their own agendas. This was one of the conclusions drawn from an Expert Roundtable held in Stellenbosch last week.

The roundtable discussion hosted by Prof. Thuli Madonsela, Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University, brought together more than twenty experts to deliberate on issues relating to social justice, economic inclusion, and immigration.

The experts, who ranged from academics, legal scholars, government officials, international dignitaries, activists, and NGO representatives were invited to scrutinize aspects of South Africa’s immigration policy and the plight of foreign workers through a social justice lens anchored in human rights.

Madonsela provided context for the discussion by saying it takes place at a time when the issues of immigration have become hugely divisive, with South African politicians mining conflict while ordinary citizens scramble for resources.

“We have seen businesses owned by migrants attacked,” Madonsela said. “We have seen local businesses that hire immigrants being challenged. And at the lowest point immigrants were burnt as part of this contestation of resources in shared space.”

In her opening remarks, Prof. Nicola Smit, Dean of the Law Faculty at SU, proceeded to frame the conversation by saying despite the constitutional commitment to social transformation, progress in South Africa has been slow and millions continue to live under conditions of social hardship.

Smit reminded participants in the roundtable that a shared humanity approach to immigration must be anchored in the participation of the people and reflect the values of society. “Inclusivity and social justice by their very nature are wide and all-embracing concepts. As a society we must make important choices and decisions about how to think about things affecting our country and region and, thereafter, when and how to regulate matters,” she said.

The talking points at the roundtable ranged from discussions on the constitutionality of refugee camps to unpacking the difference between “Afrophobia” and xenophobia. Comparisons to immigration issues in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe provided a backdrop for making sense of South Africa’s unique challenges.

In his keynote address, Dr. Sihle Mthiyane, the Department of Home Affairs chief director on policy and strategic management, argued South Africa does not have a refugee crisis, but that problems arose from people abusing the asylum system to legalize their stay in the country.

“Most applicants are economic migrants who claim asylum to buy time in order to work, study and establish businesses in the country. Other irregular migrants stay illegally in South Africa without claiming asylum, with many seeking to regularise their stay through fraud and corruption,” Mthiyane said.

A representative of the Department of Social Development, Jacques van Zuydam, suggested moving away from a security approach to a developmental approach towards migration. “We should embrace a more progressive view of refugees and cross-border migrants and provide training to promote compliance with legislative frameworks and to improve attitude towards non-nationals,” Van Zuydam said.

Academic Nompumelelo Nzimande stressed that migration is not just an issue for the Department of Home Affairs and suggested a broader inter-governmental approach.

Several panellists identified problems with South Africa’s policies toward refugees, pointing to a disjuncture between law and practice. Examples were given of current policies not being implemented correctly and of corruption and bribery thwarting migration regulation. Outspoken Judge Dennis Davis said very few judges have not had to deal with the Department of Home Affairs’ “shocking attitude” towards foreigners.

There was broad agreement among panellists that developing and implementing progressive migration policies and legislation in South Africa is significantly hampered by xenophobic hate crimes. Immigrants are being blamed for social strife, particularly an inadequacy of work opportunities, economic opportunities, and security challenges.

Statistics South Africa’s representative Diego Iturralde said it is estimated that there were 3,95 million migrants in South Africa in 2021. There is no evidence to suggest that any sector of our economy is overwhelmed by migrants, Iturralde said. “It would be improper to blame all socio-economic ills on migrants,” he concluded.

Prof. Loren Landau of the Wits-Oxford Mobility Governance Lab concurred with Iturralde and emphasized that unemployment is not an immigration issue. “Indeed, there is no evidence that, on aggregate, foreigners are replacing South African workers. Simply removing foreigners will not make farm or kitchen work more plentiful or profitable. If anything, the dynamism and skills immigrants bring make South African businesses more profitable, create jobs, generate fiscal revenue through VAT and rents, and improve economic prospects,” Landau said.

Policy researcher and social justice advocate Naledi Plaatjies spoke about prioritising women in the discussion as women often are drivers of migration, but policies don’t adequately recognize and protect women.

Research presented by Steven Gordon, Senior Research Specialist at the HSRC, showed that attitudes to migrants have remained constant over the past ten years with a third of South Africans believing the country should not allow any immigrants.

Conflict resolution specialist André Vlok suggested creative ways of dealing with xenophobia. “I propose a classical conflict resolution (or rather “peacebuilding”) approach to the problem, as this will give politicians and all of us working on this several immediate, cost-effective benefits. These benefits would include the ability to act immediately; a change of the narrative; no need to declare a winner and loser or take sides; and creative solutions that can be unlocked to leave everyone better off. It also removes this as a political pawn in the bigger arena,” Vlok said.

Negative media messaging about immigration was identified as one of the drivers of antagonism towards foreigners. Dr. Quatro Mgogo from North-West University echoed other panellists in saying the South African media landscape contributes to endemic xenophobic outbreaks through biased reporting and stigmatisation of immigrants, especially those from Africa.

At the end of this fascinating Expert Roundtable session Madonsela thanked panellists for their valuable insights and explained that input from experts for the roundtable session will be used to formulate a policy brief to Parliament and that a submission will be made to Parliament on the Draft National Labour Migration Policy and Employment Services Amendment Bill.

“We’ll also facilitate so-called social compact circles in communities with a view to integrating the immigration issue into the proposed national compact to involve people in consensus-seeking,” Madonsela said. “We will continue the journey of fostering the use of prospective social impact tools to ensure that policy design is attuned to social justice.”


Issued by the office of the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice, Stellenbosch University.
Enquiries: Marna Lourens email:; tel: 021 808 3186

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By Chair in Social Justice team
Published 16 May 2022

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About the Chair:

Professor Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela, an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, is the law trust chair in social justice and a law professor at the University of Stellenbosch, where she conducts and coordinates social justice research and teaches constitutional and administrative law.

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