African foreigners living in South Africa have complex identities. They are African, but also foreign. They belong in South Africa, but also don’t belong. They are visible, but also invisible.
This complexity is something that African foreigners have to negotiate on a daily basis. They are constantly negotiating their place in South Africa, trying to find a balance between belonging and not belonging.
This can be a difficult and lonely experience, as African foreigners often feel like they don’t fully belong anywhere. But it can also be a rich and rewarding experience, as African foreigners learn to create their own sense of belonging.
- South Africa hosts the largest number of immigrants on the African continent. According to official estimates, the country is home to about 2.9 million immigrants, which would account for slightly less than 5 percent of the overall population of 60 million people. However, this number is thought to be an underestimate because of the presence of large numbers of unauthorised migrants, particularly from neighbouring countries.
- Zimbabwe has the largest number of migrants, accounting for 24 percent of all immigrants in South Africa.
- Zimbabweans and Nigerians are the most targeted foreign nationals as compared to other countries during xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
- Between 2016 and 2021, net immigration was highest among the African (894,400) and Asian (49,900) populations.
- The major source countries for refugees and asylum seekers in 2020 were Ethiopia (the origin for 25 percent), Democratic Republic of the Congo (23 percent), Somalia (11 percent), Bangladesh (10 percent), and Zimbabwe (6 percent)
- According to 2017 statistics approximately 4% of people of working age (15 years to 64 years) across the whole of South Africa were born outside SA.
Around South Africa, the debate on what it means to be an African or South African dominates the public discourse. There is a need to change the narrative for solidarity and social cohesion. African leaders like Nelson Mandela have spoken about the importance of cohesion and unity among all Africans. In his famous autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
A brief background
South Africa is home to millions of migrants, both economic and humanitarian, making it the largest host of migrants in Africa. While this an applaudable move, however the country is struggling to resolve immigration challenges that have mushroomed to cause tensions between locals and foreign nationals.
Despite the economic challenges, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic that has left thousands of South Africans unemployed, to many locals, their frustrations boil down to the influx of immigrants. Immigrants are vulnerable to all forms of human rights abuses.
Societal and institutionalized xenophobia, hate speech, exploitation at the workplace and police brutality are some of the challenges people from other countries endure. Most of the challenges stem from ‘unbalanced’ or ‘false’ narratives about them by mainstream media and sometimes fuelled by political rhetoric. With the rise of vigilante groups in recent years, the notion of belonging, identity, where to work, where to do business for foreigners has been complex.
The animosity between South Africans and foreigners over allegations of foreigners taking locals jobs, has seen a rise in xenophobic undertones and actual violence such as we witness now and then, with the more complex one in 2018. Primary data analysis from the 2021 round of South African Social Attitudes Survey, conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council, most South Africans regard foreign nationals as a threat. Many people believe they are a major source of unemployment and other social issues
The upsurge of violence is inevitable outcome of the issue of legitimacy and locals claiming foreigners are taking what belongs to them, specifically it has raised uncomfortable questions about the notion of identity within South Africa and the way lines have been drawn between those who are from outside.
Every foreigner has been labelled a criminal in the public eye. With this context, foreigners are seen as a threat and their present has provided an uneasy scapegoat for social and economic ills. The violence of exclusive notions of belonging, has not taken place in a vacuum, and the ongoing attacks is a sharp focus to show that national identity are complex and very critical in South Africa.
With the ongoing migration issues across the country, definitely we cannot turn a blind eye in addressing them, but there is a need to change the negative narratives by informing the public to allow people from other countries to be integrated into South African society.
Related laws and policies
The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, protects the rights of all people in South Africa, regardless of their nationality. This means that everyone is entitled to the same rights and protections under the law. This is in line with the principles of human rights, which emphasize that everyone is equal and deserving of respect and dignity.
The Immigration Act of 2002 kept an emphasis on boosting skilled labour migration while maintaining a position of prohibiting illegal migration. The immigration regulation was subsequently updated in 2007, 2011, and the immigration regulation of 2014 and 2022 that take into account the changing nature of immigration in South Africa.
The Refugees Act of 1998 allows asylum seekers to move freely, work, and study in the country during the lengthy adjudication process. However, partly in response to concerns that the asylum system was being used by people without legitimate fear of persecution in order to secure work status, subsequent amendments to the law in 2008, 2011, and 2017 sought to curtail these rights.
Gaps and challenges
- The government of South Africa is facing challenges in enhancing and harmonising immigration management policies.
- There are inadequate migration management policies and border management processes.
- The Immigration Act still possesses elements of the apartheid era as it focuses on granting access to specific categories of immigrants and closing it off to others. The Act ignores most low-skilled workers from elsewhere in the SADC region, who have a very slim chance of getting documentation.
- There is a need for the media to report the economic contributions by foreigners to change the narrative.
- The Media should look at immigration and anti-foreign sentiments from all angles, reporting on complex issues of immigration, looking beyond sensationalising headlines and asking hard questions.
The role of media
The issue of media representation of immigrants is pertinent today, given the current anti-immigrant sentiment in South Africa. Negative attitudes towards foreigners are common in the media and the media tends to describe immigrants as illegal, undocumented or a dangerous threat to the locals.
In recent years, the media has been framing the agenda on foreign nationals and linking them with criminal behaviour. Their focus has been particularly on Zimbabwe national whom they claim dominate in criminal behaviour. This is evidenced by the Rosettenville Shooting where the headlines from the mainstream media focused on how many Zimbabweans, particularly were there on the scene but failed to provide the numbers for South Africans. Without a doubt, the media has played a role in fuelling anti-immigrant action. The media organisations, both local and international such as SANEF, and Internews amongst others have been playing an important role in training journalists on conflict sensitive reporting.
South Africa is one of the most democratic countries in Africa with sophisticated laws and policies to protect immigrants. However, with a high number of foreign nations both legal and illegal, immigration flow management has become one of the challenges that requires joint efforts to address it. Foreigners are brutalised on a daily basis and living in fear given the rise of anti-immigrant groups across the country.
The South African media has been dominated by negative narratives about foreign nationals, their contribution to the economy and the society at large is simply forgotten. Building positive narratives is one step towards the protection of human rights, building social cohesion and the economy at large.
This story was written by Bongani Siziba and edited by Ericson Mangoli