Business Day, 15 May 2008

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It is always a dead giveaway that this government has been caught off-guard and has run out of ideas when it resorts to blaming a “third force” for whatever crisis it finds itself in. Not that the xenophobic attacks on immigrants that have taken place over the past few days in Alexandra, a stone’s throw from Sandton, constitute a crisis, of course. Just as President Thabo Mbeki recoils in horror at the thought of this label being attached to Zimbabwe’s dire political, social and economic state, so Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula would have us believe attacks on foreigners living in SA are “too localised” to qualify as a crisis. Never mind that there have been regular reports from around the country over several years of African immigrants, both legal and illegal, being driven from their usually makeshift homes, thrown off moving trains, robbed, or forced to pay bribes to policemen to avoid arrest. As the largest group numeri-cally, Zimbabweans seem to be at the receiving end of such abuse most often, but enterprising Somalis have learnt the hard way not to compete too keenly with spaza shop owners throughout the country, and any black person with a foreign accent dare not let his guard down in some areas. It is not for nothing that the word “amakwerekwere” strikes fear in the hearts of refugees in particular — without official permission to live and work in the country, they are not only vulnerable to the actions of prejudiced South Africans, but know they will get little official sympathy. Yet both the government and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) prefer either to deny that there is a problem or point to “sinister forces” trying to destabilise the province, rather than confront the real causes. That would mean taking responsibility, and if there is one word the ruling elite in SA has consistently failed to comprehend it is “accountability.” Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula — she of the “third force” comment — knows full well that the notorious inefficiency of the government department she heads is a significant contributor to the problem, leaving thousands of desperate refugees and illegal economic immigrants with little choice but to compete with the poorest of SA’s poor to survive in places such as Alexandra. And there is a convincing argument that Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” is directly responsible for much of the influx of Zimbabweans, not to mention the collapse of basic service delivery in ANC-controlled settlements in Gauteng and elsewhere in the country. In the long term, it is clearly in the country’s best interests to tighten border controls, although the recent investigation by the office of the auditor-general revealed such an extreme shortage of border personnel that the sieve analogy will remain accurate indefinitely. The humane short-term solution to the problem is for existing illegal immigrants to be granted residence rights so that they can contribute to the economy rather than fight for scraps to survive. SA actually needs the skills many African immigrants possess but are often not able to use. However, xenophobia will remain a constant threat as long as poor, unskilled South Africans see no prospect of their own lot in life improving. That too is in the government’s hands.