8 February 2001

For two weeks the SABC, through the Two Way and Special Assignment programmes have been showing the level of xenophobia in the country. COSATU is shocked and disgusted to note that the problem of xenophobia has grown to unacceptable proportions. What angers COSATU even more is that most of the hatred is directed at the migrants of African origin. Only six years after South Africa defeated a system that was condemned by the democratic world as a crime against humanity – the apartheid system, it is regretful that white hatred and oppression of fellow black South Africans is being replaced by hatred of migrants from Africa. Incidents previously reported in the press, as well as those screened by SABC, such as throwing acid on a fellow human, clearly put some sections of our population at the same wave length as the Nazis of Germany.

A section of our population argues that the high unemployment rate and crime is as a result of the number of illegal and legal migrants from Africa. Looking at the facts, one clearly will see that South Africans are using the migrants as scapegoats. According to the home affairs there are estimated 200 000 illegal immigrants and 60 000 refugees in South Africa.

While the figures quoted above give a broad picture, they should be treated with caution since we do not have an accurate picture of the extent of illegal migration into South Africa. The extent of illegal immigrants is sometimes exaggerated to suggest that we have been flooded. Unfortunately, due to prejudice, people no longer distinguish between illegal immigrants and refugees, asylum seekers and other legal migrants.

The unemployment rate in our country is 36%. An estimated 5 million are out of work. Even if all these illegal immigrants and refugees were working in South Africa, our problem of unemployment would still be of the same crisis proportions as is currently the case.

Crime, poverty and unemployment go hand in glove. It is simply not true that crime is caused by migrants. Yes, a number of migrants have been arrested for various criminal activities. It is improper that from these isolated incidents, there is an unfair generalisation that illegal and other migrants are responsible for crime in general. This perception should be addressed head-on, as it is simply not accurate. The overwhelming majority of prisoners for example are South Africans rather than illegal immigrants.

The South African government spends millions of rands repatriating alleged illegal immigrants but has not managed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into South Africa. This points to the underlying socio-economic crisis within Africa and the region. Most immigrants are desperate enough to jump off moving trains, walk across the Kruger National Park, risking death rather than face the hunger in their own countries. This is the reason why COSATU has been calling for the convening of a Southern African Regional Summit between key stakeholders to discuss a regional development programme to build and revive the economies of the region and Africa. There will be no successful South African reconstruction and development when it is surrounded by a sea of poverty.

Unscrupulous employers that are taking advantage of the situation must be condemned, equally police who ill-treat illegal migrants in a manner similar to their past attitudes. Invariably, African immigrants receive the worst treatment from the police, suggesting that elements in the police force are still trapped in the apartheid era.

Concrete steps should be taken by the authorities to halt this super-exploitation of migrants. The bosses who are employing illegal immigrants, clearly with the view of sidestepping fair labour market laws, must be severely punished. Police who treat the immigrants as sub human beings must be severely punished.

The corrupt and inefficient Department of Home Affairs officials must be removed and replaced by more humane officials who understand the challenge of transformation. The Minister of Home Affairs must launch an investigation into rampant corruption and inefficiency that have been exposed by the Special Assignment programme, including the fact that it takes the refugees up to three months to get the necessary papers and that, in addition, some of them must bribe corrupt officials to get these documents.

The government, civil society formations and all organs of the state must prioritise the fighting of xenophobia. Like racism and tribalism, xenophobia must be defeated lest we slowly turn into a fascist society that will grow into a new polecat of the world.

The coming UN Conference on racism will play an important role in helping to develop a plan to deal with the scourge of racism, xenophobia and tribalism.

Siphiwe Mgcina COSATU Spokesperson 082-821-7456 339-4911