A New Twist to the South African Migration Debate

By Aurelia Wa Kabwe Segatti · 27 Aug 2008

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Picture: Sharon Schneider
Picture: Sharon Schneider

The May 2008 attacks and the responses they have triggered from both Government and South African civil society could well transform the migration debate much more profoundly than first meets the eye. 

The South African situation combines an extreme degree of violence (62 deaths for the May events only) with classic migration management “mistakes” observed elsewhere in the world, i.e. a laissez-faire attitude, denial of the gravity, tragic events then forcing Government to acknowledge the issue and the usual flourishing of more or less representative, more or less genuine organisations in defence of migrants’ rights. 

Another interesting feature is the discrepancy between, on the one hand, post-apartheid migration policy-makers, who have learned relatively fast from their mistakes and adapted, sometimes under much pressure, declarations and legislation accordingly, and on the other, the public and public officials on the ground who display continuous and particularly violent xenophobic attitudes and behaviour against foreigners and some South Africans of ‘dubious’ origin like Vendas or Shangaans. 

Having worked on the issue for almost 15 years now, I have a sense that the May 2008 events mark a turn in the positioning of Government, NGOs and migrants’ associations.  I would like to reflect briefly on emerging trends, some worrying and others more encouraging, and on some of the challenges brought into being by the current confrontation of interest groups competing in the South African migration agenda.

For several South African Human Rights organisations, migration was a major source of mobilisation in the late 1990S and 2000s. As almost no migrant association was structured enough to voice grievances in a way that would oblige the South African government to change its policy and practices, the human rights NGOs became Government’s obvious partner in the debate on migration. Things became more complex when the numbers of migrants and asylum seekers increased and new actors entered the arena forming alliances between academia, human rights organisations and emerging migrants’ associations.  

Although xenophobic attacks occurred very regularly throughout these two decades, the degree of mobilisation never reached what was observed recently regarding the protection of the victims of the May 2008 attacks.  However, the May events revealed fault lines between human rights NGOs and migrants’ associations who publicly criticized the NGOs’ decision to take Government to court for lack of a proper reintegration plan.  How did the victims and protectors reach conflicting positions? 

As long as the human rights NGOs acted against the illegal detention and arrest of people (including of South Africans) in the hands of migration officials, not only were their legal actions more likely to succeed, but they also, by and large, benefitted from a rather favourable public opinion.  Their actions somehow echoed historical fights led by the law clinics against abusive arrest and detention under the apartheid police.  Almost everyone also agreed to consider the Department of Home Affairs as the least efficient government department. 

Now that the same NGOs are trying to mobilise “against communities”, or more precisely for the systematic prosecution of perpetrators of xenophobic crimes within communities, and against Government to denounce its inability to ensure the actual physical protection of the displaced in the reintegration process—as we saw last Monday with the appeal to the Constitutional Court by COrMSA, they are paradoxically treading on much more uncertain grounds. 

They are no longer defending a cause (the legality of arrest and detention in a democracy) but a group of people seen, in the eyes of part of the South African public, as less and less legitimate (even though they are victims).  Soon the NGOs will be pointed at as a stumbling block in the way of Government, of local communities and eventually of some migrants’ associations resulting in their deligitimisation. 

One of the reasons for this new situation is that the great absentees of the 1990s and early 2000s, that is the migrants, are now claiming room to manoeuvre and want to impose themselves as the sole intermediaries between migrant communities and Government.  The tension observed between these new organisations and human rights NGOs during the evacuation of the camp outside the Lindela Detention Centre is revealing of an intention to somehow “get rid of the spokespersons”.

In as much as this is legitimate and was, in a way, long overdue, this positive new ownership could result, for lack of communication and identification of all challenges at stake, in more harm than good.  The skills accumulated on the side of human rights NGOs in the last decade have enabled migrants and refugees in South Africa to benefit from conditions which are, as paradoxical as this may sound, comparatively better than elsewhere on the continent from a legal perspective: freedom of movement for refugees, protection of migrants’ rights guaranteed in the Constitution, legal direct access to the labour market and most social services. 

Migrants’ associations are rightly expressing the frustration of their constituencies at remaining targets of multiple abuses and violence despite this legal apparatus and the human rights lobby’s continuous mobilisation.  Yet, the leaders of these emerging movements should be wary of the kind of attention they are given by the media and government as it carries the risk of an instrumentalisation: shady deals, lack of training in legal advice and individualistic interests are far less threatening to government than the Constitution’s ayatollahs. 

A cooperative position on both sides and mutual learning of existing skills would be far more constructive. The marginalisation of the human rights NGOs might not result in a better protection of migrants’ and refugees’ rights but, on the contrary, in less accountability in all negotiations on migration issues, and perhaps even in increased perceptions on the side of local South African communities that, in any case, they should take the law in their own hands to be heard. 

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27 Aug

A not so new twist as well?

I wonder about the particularities of gender in the situation so ably described in this article. For example, the reports of the conditions of Zimbabwean women in Lindela have always been dire. How are women, both national and so-called non-national, nuanced by the changing circumstances? How is gender itself re-articulated both in the violence and in the reconstitutions that follow?

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Rory Short
29 Aug

Another Perspective

Very interesting take on the dynamics of human interactions in the current situation of migrants in SA.

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