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Report on Social Justice Café: Social Justice, Economic Inclusion, and Immigration

On the 18th of March 2022 the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice hosted a Café styled discussion to explore social justice issues surrounding the increasingly relevant theme of: “Social Justice, Economic Inclusion and Immigration: Exploring the social justice dimensions of polarising nationalism and xenophobia concerning employment and informal sector opportunities.” See the original invitation here.

The broad objective of the café was to explore the social justice implications of the historic and recent resurgence of discontent toward foreigners in South Africa, immigration policy, utilisation of business opportunities and employment in the formal and informal sectors of the economy. The secondary objective was to explore the nature of xenophobia through a social justice lens anchored in human rights.

The keynote speaker for this Café was Dr Steven Gordon, Senior research specialist in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State research division at the Human Sciences Research Council, who has been working on the issue of xenophobia since 2012 and has published more than forty peer-review publications on this subject.

Panellists included Dr Vanya Gastrow, Research Associate at the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town, who has over the past decade studied and written about immigrant- run shops and small businesses in South Africa. Her work has covered shopkeepers’ experiences of crime and xenophobia in the country, their ability to access formal and informal justice systems, the regulation of their businesses, and their role in local economies.

Also speaking was Student panellist Lewis Mboko, former SRC Chairperson of Stellenbosch University and currently a Development Economics student pursuing a double master's degree at SU and Gottingen in Germany.

Leading the discussion as facilitator was Ms Phelisa Nkomo, Development Economist & Board Chair of OxFam South Africa.

The following is a summary of some of the key points of discussion that unfolded during the café, a full and robust audio-visual recording and written transcript, available here.

Keynote Address: Dr Steven Gordon

Using data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey, Dr Gordon sought to unpack some important issues regarding public attitudes towards international immigration in South Africa and issues relating to xenophobia.

  • A Substantial Misconception: An important and substantial misconception that needed to be addressed was how many international migrants reside in South Africa (SA). 46% of people residing in SA believe that more than 17 million international migrants live in SA and 36% believe that there are more than 25 million; these numbers are completely erroneous. The actual number of international migrants is about 4 million, which suggests that when people think about international migration, they are not approaching it using the correct depiction of the scale of the issue.
  • Sentiment Fluctuations: There is a degree of fluctuation in overall welcoming attitudes towards foreigners in SA; in some periods people are more positive than in other periods. Following periods of large-scale, anti-immigrant violence there is a wave of anti-xenophobia messaging in the media and by politicians, which has some effect on the general population who move towards a more pro-immigrant sentiment. However, as these messages decrease and anti-immigrant voices are allowed to breathe, more negative sentiments re-emerge.
  • Media Depictions: There are constant stories in the media depicting South Africans as feeling that international migrants are bad. In reality 40% of the adult population agreed that immigrants bring skills that are needed in South Africa, with only a minority disagreeing. Data from the World Bank, IMO and ILO indicate the immigrants do bring needed skills to SA and improves the SA labour market, improving opportunities even for SA locals.
  • Polarisation: Despite the general economic consensus that international migration has a largely beneficial effect on the general SA economy, the general population is divided on the issue with a large share disagreeing with the statement but still a significant minority agreeing with the statement.
  • A Zero-sum Representation: Often it is depicted that if an immigrant gets a job or opens a business, someone else as a consequence, must have lost a job or there must be less business opportunities for others. While these views are not as common as we may believe there are still substantial shares of the population that hold this view with the poor more likely to hold the view than more affluent people. This zero-sum representation is an inaccurate representation of international migration, quite often it is in reality a positive sum outcome.
  • Welfare Chauvinism: The idea that immigrants should never have the same access to social grants and services regardless of whether or not they achieve citizenship, how many taxes they pay or how long they have resided in SA is unfortunately more commonly believed than we would like. However, it is not so common to the extent of blocking out more nuanced ideas of welfare chauvinism.
  • Xenophobic Violence: 12% of the adult population in 2021 indicated that they have participated in violent action sometime in the past to prevent immigrants from living or working in their neighbourhoods. Another 12% indicated that while they have not engaged in violent action towards immigrants in the past, they would be willing to engage perhaps sometime in the future. This is a high level of admittance, given the social desirability around xenophobic violence, which is highly concerning to those interested in preventing xenophobic violence. When asked why people participate in xenophobic violence, the answers centred around the perceived negative behaviours of immigrants, with people using anti-immigrant stereotypes to justify anti-immigrant violence which they view as vigilantism.
  • Solutions: 41% of the general population believe that to stop attacks against foreigners living in SA, immigration needs to be restricted, immigrants need to be expelled or immigrants need to be more greatly policed.
  • Afrophobia: An important aspect in this conversation that needs to be explored is the observation that xenophobia and xenophobic violence is often directed at African immigrants as opposed to other forms of migrants. The relationship between racial attitudes in SA and xenophobia needs to be explored to unpack why the disparity exists.

Panellist: Dr Vanya Gastrow

Dr Gastrow shed light on the political dimensions of anti-immigrant sentiments and actions, connected the South African context to the historic prevalence of anti-immigrant action in other post-colonial states. She also explained some of the negative impacts South Africa could face as a result of Xenophobia.

  • Scaremongering: Many immigrants who have come to SA entered into the informal business sectors and are also employed in low-skill jobs which draws hostility from many poor and low skilled South Africans. Political leaders have leveraged this animosity to build solidarity with desperate and disillusioned South Africans, hoping for greater electoral support. They have done so through the use of scaremongering about immigrants claiming the underlying cause of many social evils such as crime, disease, unemployment and inequality is due to uncontrolled immigration. This has implications for social justice in SA.
  • Political Intent: It is increasingly common for political leaders to declare intentions to regulate and control foreign economic activities in the country through curbing foreign businesses and developing quota systems to make it more difficult to employ foreign workers.
  • Pitfalls of national consciousness: Patterns of Xenophobia are not unique to South Africa. Postcolonial African states in particular have been known to have regimes which inflame hostilities towards perceived foreigners, author Frantz Fanon describes this as one of the pitfalls of national consciousness. Author Mahmood Mamdoni has also observed this pattern of xenophobia often developing in the aftermath of independence of many African States.
  • Postcolonial Warnings: Postcolonial examples should act as a warning to South Africa as extreme and repressive measures against the economic activities of migrants and foreigners threaten to undermine both social and economic rights and interests of South Africans and foreigners.
  • Distractions: Heightened focus on the economic activities of migrants and scaremongering distracts the country from actually focusing on the key causes of unemployment and economic decline in the country (e.g., Corruption, failed policies, collapse of parastatals).
  • Failing to leverage: South Africa either ignores the prevalence of immigrant entrepreneurship or political leaders actively attempt to eliminate it, failing to adequately leverage their potential for economic growth as many other countries do.
  • Reaching Consequences: Clamping down on foreign-owned businesses, as witnessed in Ghana, creates a risk of real economic harm. Immigrant businesses regularly do business with South African business and/or employ South Africans; their absence would negatively impact South African economic interests. Another consequence of Xenophobia in SA could be detrimental harm to SA diplomatic relations.
  • Culture of lawlessness: Despite the willpower and intention expressed in SA, little has been done in terms of regulating foreign workers and enterprises largely due to legal impediments such as Constitutional and international law. Many citizens vent their anger and hostility against foreign businesses; the State has largely failed to clamp down on these activities leading to a culture of lawlessness and violence. The consequences of this emerging culture can be seen in the 2021 July riots in Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal.
  • A human rights-based society: While the State should adequately deal with immigration through policing and enforcement of immigration laws, immigrants and migrants that legally enter the country should be welcomed and treated with dignity by SA leaders and citizens alike. We must ensure that we build an inclusive, human-rights based society that protects the vulnerable and marginalised.

Student Panellist: Lewis Mboko

Mr Mboko sought to look at the issue from a development economics perspective. His main argument was based on the saying “cure the disease and not the symptoms”, meaning you must look at solving the problems plaguing South Africa such as inequality, poverty and unemployment, to solve the issue of Xenophobia, which is a symptom of these issues.

  • Extreme Ends: An economy plagued by inequality, poverty and unemployment is bound to have less social cohesion, which is exemplified by the situation where you have a group of people that feel satisfied with the status quo and, at the same time on the extreme end, you have people that are dissatisfied by the system itself.
  • Interconnected: The economic problems of South Africa are inflated by the economic problems of neighbouring African countries, which has driven a lot of migration towards South Africa because if one country is doing better economically, you are bound to have people migrating to the country doing better.
  • Collaboration: A solution to curb illegal immigration would be for SA to engage in a regional collaboration to ensure that the region’s economies improve together. South Africa can play a leadership role in the facilitation of economic growth in its regional neighbouring countries.
  • Igniting Flames: There is a clear discrepancy between what the people on the ground believe regarding the migration situation in South Africa and what data shows is the reality of the situation; a cause of this discrepancy could be the political rhetoric surrounding immigration which is aimed to ignite flames at the bottom, to garner political support.
  • Harmony: There is a lack of harmony between formal institutions and informal institutions. Formal institutions being the structures involved in making the rules and enforcing them. When you have inadequate formal institutions who fail to deal with issues of immigration thoroughly, then you will find that more extreme organisations and individuals within the community start to lead the people; that is where the informal structures fit in. The solution to prevent this is to ensure, when designing an immigration policy, that the people who enforce the law and observe the rules, such as civil servants, must be empowered and knowledgeable enough to make a proper effort. In the absence of that proper effort, individuals in that community will attempt to solve the problem that they think the formal institutions are failing to address.
  • Cohesion: In a community where inequality, poverty and unemployment are rampant, there will continue to be a lack of social cohesion amongst people, the consequences of which is particularly harsh for individuals who are especially vulnerable, because they cannot, for instance, necessarily get the required assistance from the police.
  • Revaluation: To promote social cohesion, we need to start solving the problems of inequality, and the key instruments to do this is to revaluate how opportunities are being availed, and how poor people access the education and healthcare system. For example, in the education system, 10% of the best schools are producing more A’s in Maths and Science than the remaining 90% of schools in SA. This demonstrates that there is a fundamental problem that needs to be solved to break the cycle of poverty.
  • Counter-productive change: Another problem is that certain rules relating to immigration are being changed to be more stringent, with the reasoning being to limit immigration to improve the economy for South Africans, yet the actual consequences would seemingly achieve the opposite. A key example of this relates to people from other countries who get educated in South African higher education institutions, previously being allowed a visa to stay in South Africa temporarily for a year to seek employment and then get a work permit to stay in South Africa are now being required to have a contract of employment immediately after completing the education to qualify for a work permit to remain in South Africa. This is an example of a rule change which takes away resources that could positively contribute to the development of the economy and improve circumstances for South Africans as a whole.

Q&A Session

1. What short-term, medium-term and long-term policy interventions can we implement to ensure better integration of other nationalities, especially those from the SADC region, that come into South Africa and create a more conducive society?

  • Dr Vanya Gastrow: In terms of improving social cohesion, I think it gets easier once you get to the second-generation immigrants. Working with the Somali community I observed that elements like culture, religion and inability to speak English makes social integration more difficult, especially amongst first generation immigrants. I do not think however this would apply much to the SADC region. Leadership is important. Leaders should send out a message which encourages foreigners and South Africans to be more welcoming and open toward each other; currently there is a lot of polarising discourse causing people to be cast against each other. Things such as the school syllabus could also be adjusted to include more content on African cultures, history and languages. We must also acknowledge that changes take time, we must create a society that is just more comfortable with different cultures, religions and diversities in general.
  • Dr Steven Gordon: We can start with the National Action Plan to fight xenophobia, racism and related intolerance, which outlines a series of policy interventions to create greater social cohesion, as well as target xenophobia. These include communication campaigns and also in a more general sense tackling, not just xenophobia in isolation from other forms of prejudice, but also prejudice in South Africa at a larger level. Existing public opinion data will tell you that anti-immigrant sentiment is strongly associated with interracial attitudes. If you have a negative opinion of other racial groups, you view them as threatening, as alien, as kind of evil, then you are much more likely to have a negative opinion of foreigners. This is true regardless of the race of the individual person, but the attitudes towards black people become a much stronger predictor of anti-immigrant sentiments. South Africans have extremely low levels of Pan-Africanism. They do not feel connected to the continent. They do not identify with people in other African countries. It is a serious problem. Existing public opinion research that is currently under peer review suggests that promoting a sense of Pan-Africanism would be extremely beneficial to creating greater social cohesion in South Africa, reducing xenophobia. Other countries have very successfully experimented with programmes that successfully integrate immigrants into host communities with a focus on economic and social integration. These policies, while initially a little expensive in the first few years, tend to pay off both economically and socially in the long term and tend to be very beneficial and, indeed, have shown good rates of return, even in poorer countries where they have been tried. It is possible for policy interventions to make a meaningful contribution to reduce this issue. However, we must start thinking about xenophobia as a form of prejudice distinct from other forms. It is quite closely connected to existing problems of social cohesion and related to problems we have around social justice and just inclusion in a very general sense.
  • Lewis Mboko: There is a lot of work that needs to be done in educating people on the realities of the situation and showing the statistics around immigration to the public. The largest problem we have these days is the amount of misinformation and disinformation spread, we must create better ways to combat misinformation and spread reliable and factual information around immigration. One of the ways this could be achieved is to educate leaders of communities on all levels around these issues so that they may pass correct information on to community members.

2. How do South Africans address the issue of xenophobia without being labelled as being as xenophobic? What are the subjective and objective issues that are embedded in the migration conversation?

  • Dr Vanya Gastrow: To have honest conversations, people need to feel confident to speak freely and share their thoughts without feeling judged. It is important to acknowledge that people have differing and competing views of immigration, because it is a complex issue and we should engage it with that perspective in mind. One of the things we often fail to acknowledge is that South Africa has one of the most progressive refugee and asylum seeker policies on the continent, if not the most progressive one. Immigrants and especially asylum seekers should be very grateful for the current policy that we have, but I do not know how long this current policy will remain the same. We should also become aware of how xenophobia has manifested in the rest of the continent, both presently and historically because it is not an issue that is unique to South Africa and part of Pan-Africanism should be about learning more about it on the continent and creating greater awareness about the phenomenon and how it extends beyond South Africa.
  • Dr Steven Gordon: Many countries in Africa have had to have very difficult debates about international migration and the quality and character of international migration. Currently South Africa, if we look at say, for example, data from the Afro barometer survey, has some of the highest levels of anti-immigrant sentiments of countries surveyed. There are about 34 countries surveyed. Certainly, there are other countries, for example, Libya and Tunisia have quite high levels of anti-immigrant sentiment as well. It is often said, and as the data as I presented has shown, that South Africans are quite xenophobic, this is a prejudicial statement. It is a stereotype. South Africans are quite nuanced on their views on international migration. I think it is definitely possible to discuss public attitudes towards international migration in a way that does not make people seem xenophobic. Often when I present these results I do not use words like xenophobia, preferring anti-immigrant, pro- immigrant attitudes to take the discussion to a less emotive place, as many people get very emotive about the word “xenophobia”, much as many people also get a motive when the word “racist” gets thrown around, where certain people are characterised as racist for holding certain opinions regarding certain matters.
  • Lewis Mboko: When discussing and debating immigration people often engage in confirmation bias where one tries to find things that you already know, that this is what you want or it supports your beliefs or your ideas or your values as well; to have constructive conversations we must attempt to avoid this. We must also recognise that if the roles were reversed, if for example South Africans were immigrating to another country such as Zimbabwe, we would most likely see the same problems manifesting as we observe in South Africa toward Zimbabwean immigrants. It is important to avoid generalisations and discount people’s lived experiences. We have to understand that it is a conversation that needs to be held and it is everyone’s problem. Like Prof Gordon was saying terminology is a big part of addressing this issue.

3. Why is it important that we tell the truth about the numbers of international migrants in the country?

  • Dr Steven Gordon: The scale of international migration is often used as a justification for anti-immigrant activities, as well as anti-immigrant policy, so properly understanding the scale of international migration allows us to consider it as a phenomenon within our society and make appropriate policy choices around it.

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By Chair in Social Justice team
Published 7 November 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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