R Mattes, DM Taylor, DA McDonald, A Poore and W Richmond

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 14

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As South Africa grapples with the challenge of crafting new immigration legislation, it is important to understand public opinion on the issue. This report deals specifically with the willingness of South Africans to welcome non-South Africans to the country. Drawing on results of an extensive national survey conducted in mid-1997 by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP), the report examines the attitudes of South Africans towards immigrants and immigration policy, and explores the implications of these attitudes for immigration reform and public education.

The first, and perhaps most surprising, result of the research is that only 1% of respondents in the survey cited immigration as one of the three most important issues facing the country today. Despite increased reports of anti-immigrant sentiment and behaviour, and the high visibility of the issue in the press, surveys from 1994 to 1997 demonstrate that immigration is not a top priority for most South Africans. Also somewhat surprising, given the nature of press reports on attitudes towards immigrants, is the small, but important, cadre of South Africans who support a more liberalized immigration regime and accept immigrants and immigration. Although this group is clearly in the minority, the fact that such a minority does exist - and that all racial, economic, gender and ethnic groups are represented in it - suggests that there is at least some support for a more management and service-oriented approach to immigration policy in the future.

But this potential for a new immigration regime in South Africa is countered by some disturbing trends, the most notable of which is that the majority of South Africans are resoundingly negative towards any immigration policy that might welcome newcomers. Twenty-five percent of South Africans want a total ban on immigration and 45% support strict limits on the numbers of immigrants allowed in. Only 17% would support a more flexible policy tied to the availability of jobs, and only 6% support a totally open policy of immigration. This is the highest level of opposition to immigration recorded by any country in the world where comparable questions have been asked.

While whites and blacks are equally opposed to immigration and immigrants, the specific reasons differ. For both groups, however, those who are most opposed to immigration and dislike immigrants display various forms of xenophobia. Those who oppose immigration are less inclined to accept diversity within South Africa, believe that immigrants weaken society and threaten the nation's health, and think that foreigners are unable to assimilate into the South African nation.

All South Africans appear to have the same stereotypical image of Southern Africans, citing job loss, crime and disease as the negative consequences they fear from immigrants living in the country. Interestingly, though, only 4% of respondents reported that they actually interact with non-citizens from the region on a regular basis, suggesting that these stereotypes may be the product of second-hand (mis)information. Thus, it may be possible to counteract such stereotypes with a well devised public education programme.

Policy-makers therefore face a major challenge in terms of fostering a climate that is more open to outsiders and their presence in the country. South Africans display a modest acceptance of diversity and have relatively favourable views of different racial and ethnic groups within the country (Africans more so than whites). But these favourable conditions for peaceful diversity are offset by very negative attitudes toward newcomers. What we have is an attitudinal profile that will not be easily overcome. South Africans are unlikely to be quickly persuaded to view non-citizens and immigrants more favourably simply by providing more realistic, positive and accurate information about what immigrants and migrants actually do, or about their true impact on the country.

Nevertheless, creating a better public awareness about the actual experiences and intentions of foreign citizens living in South Africa (permanently and temporarily) is an expressed intention of the South African government, many NGOs and the Human Rights Commission. If South Africa is to address the problem of xenophobia in the country adequately, and develop a more pragmatic approach to cross-border movements in the region, it is essential to have public support - or at least a softening of public opposition - for these policies to take root.

Related SAMP surveys of migrants and immigrants clearly demonstrate that the large majority of people who come to South Africa have no desire to stay in the country permanently. More importantly, those migrants who come from other African countries, and those from neighbouring countries who have been to South Africa in the past, generally contribute to the social and economic fabric of the country, and are responsible, relatively well-educated and law-abiding citizens of their own nation. Information like this could help to ameliorate the anxiety that South Africans appear to have about the impact of trying to accommodate culturally different and "unassimilable" people into the country.

Finally, public education should also concentrate on raising the curtain of ignorance that South Africans have about people from neighbouring countries: not only information about what people from other African countries do while they are in South Africa, but more and better information about "Africa" itself - that great void in the public mind north of the Limpopo. What are its cultures like, how do its peoples live? Only this may eliminate the pervasive, yet fictional, popular notion that "hordes" of northern barbarians have already invaded the country, with millions more now massing on the borders.