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Australian and South African migrant hostility


Fence, South Africa borderTwo months ago, 29-year-old Godfrey Sibanda was walking home from work in the early evening in Seshego township near the regional centre of Polokwane in northern South Africa. A mob set upon him in the semi darkness, beat him and threw rocks at him.

The police in the area had been on alert but were too late at the scene: Sibanda succumbed to injuries sustained in the attack. His crime? He was a Zimbabwean and he had a job. In Seshego, as elsewhere in South Africa's poor township communities, this combination can be a capital offence.

Previously in nearby Lebowakgomo, 3000 people of Ethiopian origin were rendered homeless after a South African family accused a young Ethiopian man of raping the family member he'd been seeing.

Such incidents follow a disturbing pattern. In Seshego, years of frustration at lack of services led to a meeting between the community and its political leaders. The meeting called for the 'eviction' of local Zimbabwean residents that are seen as competing for the same jobs, waiting at the same bus stops for trucks to come along and offer them casual 'piece' work for the day.

The local councillor is one of the 12 people charged with Sibanda's murder.

As horrific as this incident was, what is more worrying is a recent shift in the message from parts of government towards migrants in general and the Zimbabweans in particular.

Two years ago South African authorities declared a special dispensation trying to cope with the thousands of irregular movers crossing the border from Zimbabwe. This made the crossing, albeit still risky, much safer. This dispensation ended last year as South African authorities announced that all Zimbabweans living in South Africa should henceforth be registered and properly documented.

The measure intended a beneficial outcome — it was aimed at regularising Zimbabweans in the country so they would not become the victims of 'impunity' crimes or attract unscrupulous labour practices. But the refusal of the Department of Home Affairs to admit that its registration process may have missed important sub-groups (normally the most vulnerable) and its scepticism about total numbers of Zimbabweans, have the potential to compromise the expected benefits.

More damaging was a statement made in June by Maggie Maunye, head of Parliament's oversight committee on Home Affairs, which suggested foreigners were compromising the freedom South Africans gained in 1994. As well as being inflammatory, this suggests a political agenda is at play.

Like Australia, South Africa is concerned that it has become the nation of choice of forced and other migrants. There is increasing evidence of an unofficial policy of preventing forced migrants from entry, forcing countries to the north — namely Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique — to accept asylum seekers on a more or less permanent basis.

Like Australia, there is a moral argument that South Africa, by virtue of its greater economic capacity, has an obligation to accept a greater proportion of those on the move. Most commentators would argue that, with 171,702 asylum seekers pending processing of their claims (compared to Australia's 3760), South Africa has met its international obligations. Many South Africans would agree.

At the same time there is a body of opinion within government that suggests the Zimbabwean government should take greater responsibility to prevent migration from within its borders. This hits at the heart of Zimbabwe's policies that have resulted in its economic collapse and slow recovery.

A young Zimbabwean man recently told me of the great kindness he experienced in a South African township when, sleeping in a forest nearby, he came down to seek 'piece' work. This suggests there remains a deep reservoir of good will in the community.

It is disappointing to see elements of government, so long respectful of the Refugee and OAU conventions and of general humanity, may be bowing to short-term political opportunism.

The Government needs to limit its rhetoric, take ownership of the larger social and economic grievances expressed by marginalised communities, and finally develop an integrated migration policy that admits the potential benefits of all forms of migration to a struggling community.

They could take a leaf out of the older members of this small community, who provided a bed, water, food and clothing to this young Zimbabwean, giving him a chance to get on his feet. He now works as a translator, pays taxes and contributes to his community.

By providing such hospitality in the critical days after he crossed the border, his hosts demonstrated the power of the ubuntu tradition of which Africans are so proud.


David HoldcroftDavid Holdcroft SJ is regional director of Jesuit Refugee Service for southern Africa. 

Topic tags: David Holdcroft, South Africa, Zimbabweans, asylum seekers, refugees



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Existing comments

The final three paragraphs are so instructive in todays world.....an important lesson for us all

If a struggling ocmmunity can offer a hand up why are we in Australia so tardy and so insular in our vision?

We too will experience disruption and riots if we don't attend to our marginalised minorities.

GAJ | 18 August 2011  

Man has always been a tribal being and no doubt always will be.Even the Christ himself was killed because (amongst other things) he belonged to the wrong tribe in his time. I suppose we should keep on trying even though the aeons of history would indicate that human tribes will always celebrate their differences and ,unhappily, kill because of them.

john Frawley | 18 August 2011  

David: a thought provoking and very helpful article. Thank you

Michael Gray Artarmon NSW | 18 August 2011  

Distressing to read this, I did not know this was happening.

It seems to me that good governance throughout Africa should be a very high UN priority.

Lisa Hill | 19 August 2011  

Indeed, those three final paragraphs are quite instructive and characteristic of a common form of mental manipulation. Most ethnic groups, in Africa, Asia or Europe, have a tradition of hospitality and - at the same time - of violent resistance to any form of mass invasion. There is absolutely no contradiction between those two behaviors.

Michael | 23 August 2011  

Australia wants legal migrants - it is the illegal migrants that cause problems - and the industry this has spawned with the "boat people" who feel they can jump the queue and just land in Australia, while legal migrants wait years for entry VISA's, we all want to help people but there are channels that must be used otherwise there is no control and the additional costs to countries can be extreme.

Just because Australians are tolerant and welcoming does not mean that this should be seen as weakness as we are a humane country.

Larry Phillips | 07 September 2011