When South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, ordered the country’s northern borders closed on 29 December 2020 to limit the spread of Coivd-19, the debate surrounding migration and illegal immigration in Southern Africa gained traction. For decades African countries have struggled to secure their borders with porous perimeters often contributing to protracted conflicts, but in South Africa – whose neighbouring countries are mostly stable – border security challenges have seen increased smuggling and illegal entry. In tandem the country has seen a rise in xenophobic sentiment, with many locals convinced illegal immigrants from other African nations are stealing jobs, driving up crime, and draining resources. While this has fuelled calls to secure the northern border, the drivers of migration (both legal and illegal) and its strategic impact on a country’s economic development are more complex.
As one of Africa’s “Big Four” economies – along with Kenya, Nigeria, and Egypt – South Africa is the main destination for many migrants on the continent. Approximately 5.1% of South Africa’s population of about 60 million people (4.2 million) were not born in South Africa. Of that, about 66.2% are from other African countries. Zimbabwe (22.6%) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC -10.4%) are the two main sources of migrants – although there are significant groups from Nigeria, Somalia, and Mozambique who chose to describe themselves as “other” to avoid perceived institutional persecution. Moreover, a large proportion of the migrants seek to repatriate or gain permanent residency in South Africa – 2.3% of South Africans (about 45% of immigrants) were not born in the country.
Migrants from the DRC, Somalia, and Mozambique are usually refugees or asylum seekers escaping decades of conflict that have dominated the region. Conversely, Zimbabweans are often remittance migrants who maintain households in their home country and regularly send money back. Indeed, because Zimbabwe shares a border with South Africa, Zimbabwean migrants will often return home several times a year. The plight of many of these migrants has been heightened by Covid-19 restrictions, as exemplified when thousands of Zimbabwean migrants trying to enter South Africa legally through the Beitbridge border were left stranded after the border shutdown, with many resorting to illegal border crossings.
There are over 200 illegal crossing points on the South African border, many over the Limpopo River, which forms its borders with Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The crossings are not only used by illegal immigrants, but by wildlife, weapons, and narcotics smugglers, as well as human traffickers, collectively prompting South African government pledges to target these sites.
This perceived targeting of illegal immigrants could fuel already proliferate negative and often misinformed public sentiment toward illegal immigration in South Africa, where most illegal immigrants in South Africa are people who entered legally but have overstayed their work permit or visa. There is also a perception that illegal immigrants do not pay taxes, drain money from the economy, and commit a large portion of violent and organised crime.
Such perceptions have led to xenophobic stereotypes spreading throughout South African society with many locals, especially in low-income communities, convinced that all foreigners are involved in criminal networks. Thus, legal migrants who run shops or informal businesses in low-income areas are often targets of violent crimes themselves. This has seen a series of xenophobic attacks and riots in recent years, with associated property damage and looting, that has severely damaged South Africa’s regional and international reputation and economic development. Indeed, while riots in Johannesburg in September 2019 drew international headlines, over 200 foreign truck drivers – accused of being illegal immigrants – have been attacked since the acute 2019 unrest was put down by the South African Police Service (SAPS). With the Covid-19 spotlight now shining a harsh spotlight on illegal immigration, rising unemployment and poverty levels driven by the last year’s lockdowns are likely to fuel local anger premised on convictions that illegal immigrants are draining the ever more limited pool of local jobs and resources.
With the second wave of Covid-19 in South Africa coinciding with a surge in illegal immigration, rumour has also taken root that immigrants are conspiring to infect South Africans are spreading ‒ another potentially explosive catalyst for more xenophobic violence.
Hence, while strengthening borders and tightening of migration procedures could reduce the numbers of illegal immigrants into South Africa, it will leave a myriad of problems unattended. Underlying xenophobic tensions will be easily ignited as Covid-19 erodes the already fragile South African economy where growing numbers of unemployed are reliant on meagre grants for survival. Indeed, the prohibitive costs of expanding border security (including high initial costs and increasing maintenance costs) will draw money away from economic development and grant programmes. These inevitable cuts will further growing popular frustrations over the state’s burgeoning corruption crisis and continued service delivery failures that have seen chronic underperformance on health, education, water, electricity, sanitation and others. Topping this off, the government’s very public failure to timeously ensure vaccine access will amplify the deprivations of especially poor South Africans and their antipathy to illegal immigration. Therefore, while most illegal immigrants are people who enter South Africa legally and in desperate need of bureaucratic improvements to help them continue to work there, they are likely to be ostracised and targeted by xenophobic attacks. The rising tide of migration in the region is unlikely to be a short-lived pressure. Contrarily, the terrorist insurgency and harsh climatic conditions in neighbouring Mozambique are likely to see further migratory pressures in the short term. Managing the latent crisis will be vital to contain the possible economic, political and social fallout for not only South Africa but the region as a whole, with all South Africa’s neighbours dealing with their own Covid-19 challenges, generally with even less resources at their disposal.