Pitfalls of blaming migrants

Nicholas Mabhena.

Nicholas Mabhena.

Published Dec 4, 2023


The growing tendency of political parties to apportion culpability for the country’s woes on its immigrant population is dangerous and a misreading of sentiments at grass-roots level.

By Nicholas Mabhena

Pictures tell a thousand words, the saying goes.

The first picture is from the FNB Stadium rally of the EFF some time ago. The party prides itself on its steadfast support for pan-Africanism and therefore, brooks no anti-migrants myths and stereotypes.

The second is from a Patriotic Alliance rally at Orlando Stadium recently. The PA’s basic principle seems to be premised on ridding South Africa of all migrants.

Is there a lesson in this for all the political parties in that, while the EFF filled the 95 000-seater FNB stadium, the PA could not draw a crowd of 300 people – less than a percentage of the stadium’s capacity – that anti-migrant sentiments are not appealing to South Africans?

Analysing the two pictures, one can easily conclude that on the ground, South Africans do not have time for parties like the PA which is trying to build a political platform by propagating and spreading disinformation and hate against African migrants who have escaped wars, political persecution and economic challenges and are seeking asylum and better life opportunities in South Africa.

This must serve as a wake-up call to other parties that are also trying to create and rely on political platforms based on anti-migrant sentiments. There are parties, like ActionSA and to some extent, the DA, that are not prepared to come out strongly and assure migrants South Africa is a haven.

It is also a lesson for the ruling party, the ANC, which seems to be drifting towards an anti-migrant position as a survival tactic as the 2024 elections approach.

One of the reasons is a perception within the ruling party that its grass-roots support is increasingly anti-migrant. As the PA has demonstrated, it’s a false reading of the views of people on the ground.

As the African Diaspora Forum, we continue to encourage our members to be hugely sympathetic to the plight of the poor and working-class South Africans. It is true that poor South Africans are victims of, among other things, service delivery failures. The impression is then created that part of the problem related to scarce resources is due to competition from migrants.

The perceptions are exacerbated by fake reports and lopsided media coverage which seek to portray migrants as being largely responsible for the country’s economic woes, for instance.

There’s a lack of political courage to call it what it is: high unemployment, poverty and inequality arise from from the structure of the economy and the country’s social history which has resulted in 20% of the population owning 80% of the country’s wealth.

Simply put: the capitalist structure of the economy means that, for instance, mining companies can simply fire thousands of workers because a drop in the price of gold ore or an increase in the cost of production, like Harmony Gold recently announced.

Jingoistic political parties, however, wrongly base their perceptions on myths about migrants that have been debunked by, among others, empirical academic research which showed that migrants are largely self-employed and, in fact, generate two to three jobs for locals.

A second myth pushed by some political parties is on crime while all the empirical evidence points to the fact that migrants are largely the victims rather than the perpetrators of crime.

The migrant population make up about 6% of South Africa’s 60 million population and logically, cannot be blamed for the scourge of crime in South Africa.

An earlier Victims of Crime survey showed that only between 5 and 6% of households blamed crime on “people from outside of South Africa”. A previous minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Michael Masutha, stated in 2017 that only 7.5% of prison inmates were foreigners, a statistic later reinforced by Minister of Police Bheki Cele.

A further myth that has no basis is that South Africa is “overrun” by immigrants. Statistics South Africa estimates the number of foreigners in South Africa at 3.95 million, not nine to 12 million people as often and erroneously cited by politicians.

The hapless PA leader, Gayton Mackenzie, has said that he would personally go to state health facilities to remove migrants who were “overwhelming” the health services. At about 6.5% of the population, it’s statistically impossible for migrants to overburden the country’s health services. It’s a stereotype trap Limpopo Health MEC Dr Phophi Ramathuba embarrassingly fell into.

The danger for political parties operating on anti-migrant platforms is that they misread the situation on the ground. South Africans see through the ruse that blaming service delivery failures on migrants is false.

It is imperative that political parties that will be spending millions on marketing research over the next six months make sure that the right questions are asked about the sentiments of South Africans on migration.

Otherwise, they could end up with egg on their face, as McKenzie and his cohorts found out at Orlando Stadium.

Nicholas Mabhena is the executive director of the African Diaspora Forum in Johannesburg.

The Star