More Than One Way to Cut the Pie: Providing For Foreigners and South Africans

By Tara Polzer · 11 Jun 2008

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There is a dangerous refrain in explanations for the xenophobic violence that has erupted around South Africa: that the violence was triggered by resource competition between citizens and non-citizens. Many government and civil society commentators have said, in no uncertain terms, that there is no justification for expressing competition for scarce resources through violence, but often the claim that there is indeed competition for resources, remains unquestioned. But are foreigners really the reason 'we can't provide for poor South Africans'?

It is extremely important to answer this question correctly. Not only will the wrong answer possibly cost the lives of more innocent people, but, crucially, it will distract us from the real reasons underlying poverty and service delivery backlogs. In taking seriously the reality of desperate poverty, extreme inequality, and disappointed expectations, we therefore have to challenge and reject the false equation between the presence of non-citizens and the poverty of South Africans.

This is not always easy. One of the reasons the resource competition argument is so widespread is that it seems so common-sensical: where there are limited resources, if you add more people, each person gets a smaller slice of the pie. But this argument is fatally flawed.

The first problem concerns the assumption of limited resources as the reason for a lack of service delivery to the poor. It is true that South Africa is a developing country, a middle-income country, not among the rich nations of the world. However, it is not an absolute lack of resources which bedevils public welfare and poverty alleviation programmes. The government has had a national budget surplus for several years; the Provincial Departments of Health, Education and Housing, among others, regularly cannot spend their allocated budgets or fill open nursing and teaching positions; and reference to scarce resources rings hollow in Sandton, Umhlanga Rocks and Cliffton Beach. We know that service delivery backlogs in South Africa stem from a combination of institutional capacity constraints and failures in balancing resource distribution between the rich and the poor. How can foreigners be blamed for either of these?

Secondly, are service delivery problems linked to an influx of unplanned and unexpected people into an area? Not always: the now-notorious Mt. Frere Hospital in the Eastern Cape is in an area with virtually no foreigners, and the housing waiting lists, clinic waiting lines and teacher/student ratios are largest in some of the country’s rural districts where absolute population densities have been declining rather than suddenly rising. In the fast-growing urban areas, and especially the informal settlements, there is indeed an influx of newcomers, but the vast majority of these are South Africans from rural areas, coming to the city in search of employment and better living conditions. Since South Africa does not require its citizens to register their place of residence every time they move, it is no wonder that Gauteng Province struggles to plan services for a population that considers ‘home’ to be in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, KwaZuluNatal or the Free State.

Further on the question of an influx, it is true that South Africa does not have reliable information about the number and whereabouts of foreign migrants, especially those who are undocumented, and it is true that more reliable information would improve service planning. However, the numbers regularly bandied about -  five million Zimbabweans, 10 million illegal immigrants - are irresponsible conjecture, not based on evidence of any kind and certainly not solid enough to begin judging whether the cost to social services is too high or not.

Which brings me to the third assumption: that there is a finite 'pie' of resources to be shared out, and that the pieces are therefore getting smaller. Part of the resource competition argument is often that foreigners somehow manage to grab more than their fair share of the pie, if they are granted the right to a share at all. In fact, the vast majority of foreign migrants use few public services and have difficulties accessing services when they do need them.

Our recent research shows that only 15 percent of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees have school-age children with them in South Africa, and over half have never needed or accessed public health care since their arrival in the country. Non-citizens, except those with permanent resident status, are completely excluded from public housing, social grants and public works employment programmes. While there may be some isolated cases of fraudulent access to these services, there are much higher levels of housing and grant fraud among South Africans who do not qualify for such state subsidies, as shown by several investigations by the Public Protector and other oversight bodies.

Importantly, excluding some people from the resource pie does not necessarily mean there is more left over for ‘us’. In fact, exclusion can diminish the size of the pie for all. An example is health care. A person who is ill in my community and cannot access health care is not only suffering alone but can affect the health of the entire community. A person who is afraid of abuse and rejection at the local clinic and therefore waits to seek health care until she is critically ill, will need more resources than if she had been given early and safe access to care.

Finally, the pie can grow through the contribution of additional people. Employment is such an expandable pie, where foreigners contribute to the growth of the overall economy (and thereby to more employment creation) by working in niches, skilled and unskilled, where South Africans cannot or will not work. Even more directly, our research in inner-city Johannesburg has shown that non-South Africans are much more likely to have hired someone to work for them in the past year than their South African neighbours, and that most of the people they hired were South Africans.

So what do we conclude? Firstly, South Africa’s absolute priority – governmental and societal – must be to address the high levels of poverty and unemployment in the country. In order to do this, we must focus on the real causes of poverty, unemployment and backlogs in public service provision, and not allow this crucial discussion to be sidetracked by spurious references to immigration policy.

Second, in those specific cases and places where domestic or cross-border migration do place concrete pressure on existing services and institutions, this needs to be managed by increasing our empirical knowledge of population movements and planning resource allocation accordingly.

Finally, we must look at the provision and distribution of public resources holistically: as a means of continuing to expand the pie for all, and not only as a means of eating a small piece of the pie today.

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