The eruption of violence in some areas over the past few weeks, between citizens and foreign nationals, including this week in Alexandra township, is testament to the fact that the issue of migration has become a serious crisis in South Africa.

While we appreciate the frustrations of many of our people as they have to compete for limited economic opportunities with foreign nationals, there can never be any justification for resorting to violence.

It is our informed view that the people are taking the law into their own hands because they feel that government is not doing enough to deal with the issue of foreign nationals who are in the country illegally.

That is not entirely correct. Perhaps one of our weaknesses as government has been our failure to effectively communicate the steps taken to address the issues arising from migration.

Migration is a global phenomenon. People will always move to other countries in search of better economic prospects, while others arrive seeking asylum.

To add background, maybe we should start from the beginning.

During the apartheid era, South Africa’s borders were highly secured. The National Party government had put up fences along our borders, guarded and patrolled by the SA Defence Force, as it wanted to keep freedom fighters from infiltrating the country.

When South Africa achieved democracy in 1994, the country moved from being a pariah state to a darling of the world and, in the process, attracted many people, especially those from various parts of Africa.

As the country was slowly integrated into the world community of nations, there was less focus on the borders, which made it easier for people from neighbouring countries to enter South Africa illegally.

As part of entrenching a culture of human rights, South Africa ratified the UN Convention on Refugees in 1996. The convention obligations were further cemented when the Refugee Act was passed by Parliament in 1998.

What was not anticipated was that South Africa, as the most developed and highly industrialised country on the continent, would be a magnet for immigrants who were looking for better economic prospects.

They came mainly from Africa, the East and other countries. The common denominator for most of these immigrants was that they were looking for better economic opportunities.

However, virtually none of them would disclose their real reasons for opting to come to South Africa and would position themselves as asylum seekers. More than 90% of those who claimed to be seeking asylum were in fact economic migrants.

The immigration situation worsened after 2000, when there was an economic meltdown in Zimbabwe. Millions of Zimbabweans left their country in search of jobs elsewhere, but the majority settled in South Africa.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), South Africa has the most progressive immigration laws in the world.

This has opened the door for some foreign nationals to abuse the country’s refugee-friendly laws.

As a way of mitigating the unexpected influx of foreign nationals, successive home affairs ministers granted exemptions mostly to Zimbabwean and Lesotho nationals. This allowed them to work or seek jobs without complying with all the requirements set out in the Immigration Act.

Perhaps that is why some foreign nationals have tended to abuse our refugee-friendly laws. For instance, in our ubuntu approach, we created a temporary work permit regime for Zimbabweans. 

Now, when I decided not to extend exemptions granted to the Zimbabweans, the response was court action by some of them, demanding to be granted permanent residence status. The department of home affairs is defending this spurious court action.

That is not all. Recently, there were foreign nationals demanding that their children born in South Africa should automatically become citizens. It took a meeting with the UNHCR to clarify the country’s position.

The department and the UNHCR held a high-level meeting recently that resulted in an agreement between the parties.

It states in part: “The UNHCR agrees that South Africa is not obliged to grant citizenship to every child born in South African territory to non-South African parents, unless there is an indication that it would lead to statelessness.”

The agreement further states:

The UNHCR will organise a tripartite process with a view to operationalise and expedite the process of voluntary repatriation. This will also ensure that countries of origin take responsibility for their nationals.

There are many misconceptions about immigration laws. For instance, some foreign nationals believe that, because they were allowed to study in South Africa, they should be granted permanent residence status so that they can work in the country. This is inconsistent with the Immigration Act and is not known to be practised in any other country, except as a special offer from a particular nation.

Given the high level of unemployment, which has been worsened by the outbreak of Covid-19, the competition for economic opportunities between citizens and foreign nationals became fierce, especially in poorer areas. Suddenly, citizens are demanding that action be taken against illegal foreign nationals. However, what cannot be in dispute is that South Africans are not xenophobic.

It is a fact that we have more Basotho in South Africa than in Lesotho. We also have more Batswana in South Africa than in Botswana itself.

During the economic boom, when South Africa was the biggest exporter of gold, the country had many migrant workers from countries such as Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

These migrants lived in peace with the locals and there was no violence perpetuated against them. Currently, there are thousands of qualified foreign professionals working in our health sector, in academic institutions and in the banking sector, and they live in peace with South African citizens.

The tension we witness in some of our poorer townships between foreign nationals and citizens is not fuelled by xenophobia, but simply by competition for limited economic opportunities, housing and other social amenities. The main factors driving people to leave their countries of origin have to do with socioeconomic conditions.

The department has taken effective steps to deal with border management through the establishment of the Border Management Authority, which has started recruiting border guards to deal with those illegally entering the country.

To deal with illegal migrants, the department conducts at least 250 operations targeting illegality each year. It may not make newspaper headlines, but the department deports between 15 000 and 20 000 undocumented migrants each year.

It is not as if citizens are left to deal with illegal migrants on their own, however, there is simply no room to resort to violence, as there are laws to deal with illegal migrants.

The duty of each citizen is to report any illegality to the relevant authorities.

It should be noted that the establishment of all businesses by citizens or foreign nationals falls within the jurisdiction of the municipalities concerned in those localities.

They are expected to enforce their bylaws without fear or favour.

Motsoaledi is the minister of home affairs