Xenophobia: the solution is not better border control, but a change in economic policy

Johannes Wessels

Is Donald Trump advising the ANC and the DA?  Bashing (illegal?) immigration is a key pillar in both these campaigns and both parties are as wrong and misguided as Trump on this subject, trying to address consequences and ignoring the cause.

The ANC election manifesto promises the party will ensure “those who come to South Africa do so legally and that the country knows what they do while they are in the country”. It will take “tough measures against undocumented immigrants involved in criminal activities in the country or in cross-border crimes, including those involved in illegal trading and selling adulterated food in townships and villages”. 

It is hard to spot the difference when the DA’s Musi Maimane says “securing our borders is not simply about keeping people out. It is about ensuring that all migration occurs legally and knowing who has entered the country. It is about being able to plan ahead and make sure our budgets can stretch to cover all they need to cover. It is about making it easier for those who want to enter South Africa legally – because we want legal, law-abiding people to bring their skills here and help grow our economy – but making it impossible for those who want to enter illegally.”

the fault line of prejudice …

Both these approaches run dangerously close to the fault line of prejudice that had before resulted in xenophobic attacks on foreigners in South Africa.

Some recent examples of this anti-foreigner group-think, are:

  • King Zwelithini in March 2015: “[South Africans] who do not want to work, who are thieves, rapists and house breakers…. When foreigners look at them, they will say: let us exploit the nation of idiots. As I speak you find their unsightly goods hanging all over our shops, they dirty our streets… There are foreigners everywhere… I ask our government to help us to fix our own problems, help us find our own solutions. We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and go back to their countries”.
  • Ace Magashule in January 2019: “…undocumented foreigners are not paying tax and are running businesses in the townships without licences. If they are undocumented when crime happens, you can’t even get these people. You can’t get their fingerprints. We are listening to the cries of our people.”

Looting of shops is just business protection…

When foreigners are attacked, murdered and their shops looted, the explanation is paraded that the burning and looting of shops owned by foreigners were mere acts of criminality and not driven by xenophobia.  Thabo Mbeki took that line in 2006 after 21 Somalian shopkeepers were murdered: He argued that township businesspeople were “just trying to protect their market” from foreign nationals who outsell them in the township market. 

Sowetan residents “protecting their markets”through proletarian shopping…

Lindiwe Sisulu, Minister of Foreign Affairs, met on 4 April African ambassadors to discuss the recent violence against foreigners that occurred in Durban and several other places. According to Peter Fabricius, they came to hear what the South African government intended doing about attacks against their citizens. “Instead, they were presented with a litany of crimes being committed by their nationals in South Africa”. 

One of the 20 worst police forces in the world

The two largest parties are therefore both seeking a solution in a Trump-like prevention and control of migrants.  (The ANC, however, fails to explain why its assurance of control on foreigners would work if it is incapable of dealing with the high levels of crime and successfully managed the downgrading of the SA Police Service to one of 20 worst and most unreliable police forces in the world.)

Both parties are looking at immigration from an anti-business and anti-growth perspective, trying to apply remedies to the effects, rather than addressing the cause for the friction between locals and foreigners: low economic growth and a scramble for livelihoods on the one hand and increased pressure on public infrastructure on the other.

Government policies exacerbates both causes. To understand this, let us look at one of the most interesting examples of the impact of immigration:  that in the United States of America.

One immigrant for every 6 locals

Immigration – especially illegal immigration – is one of the hottest topics since Trump availed himself as a presidential candidate with a promise to build a wall between the US and Mexico. That in a country that grew exponentially from 1800 to 1900 because of shipload after shipload of European immigrants.  After the War of Independence immigration remained subdued and in 1830 only about 2% of the population of 12.8 million were foreign born. Thereafter immigration accelerated and by 1910 14.7% of the population 92.2 million were foreign born – a total of 13.6 million or one out of every 7 persons.

They came with empty hands… lured by opportunity, not entitlement

The Welfare state undermines the benefits of immigration

The massive influx of Irish, Italians, Germans, Scandinavians, Poles and others (with a strong contingent Jews and Catholics) provided unskilled labour that built railways, roads and bridges and multi storey buildings in the cities.  They also provided those with skills in operating textile machines.  And some applied their century old collective skills and know-how in organising finance for a country that desperately needed fast-growing credit facilities.

The United States transformed within a century from a largely agrarian society that experienced a devastating civil war into the most progressive modern economy.  Without the input of immigrants, progress would have been far less spectacular, if not impossible.

Why is immigration that delivered “so much good” by 1910 a century later an issue that is considered “so bad”?  Milton Friedman lucidly explained the difference:

Millions of immigrants came with empty hands…  What brought them here? It was the hope for a better life for them and their children. In the main, they succeeded. It is hard to find any century in history, in which so large a number of people experienced so great an improvement in the conditions of their life, in the opportunities open to them, as in the period of the 19th and early 20th century.

I’ve always been amused by a kind of a paradox. Suppose you go around and ask people: ‘The United States before 1914, as you know, had completely free immigration. Anybody could get in a boat and come to these shores and if landed at Ellis Island he was an immigrant. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?’

“You will find hardly a soul who will say it was a bad thing. ‘But what about today? Do you think we should have free immigration?’ ‘Oh, no,’ they’ll say, ‘We couldn’t possibly have free immigration today. Why? That would flood us with immigrants from India, and God knows where. We’d be driven down to a bare subsistence level.’

“What’s the difference? How can people be so inconsistent? Why is it that free immigration was a good thing before 1914 and free immigration is a bad thing today?

“Well, there is a sense in which that answer is right. There’s a sense in which free immigration, in the same sense as we had it before 1914 is not possible today. Why not? Because it is one thing to have free immigration to jobs. It is another thing to have free immigration to welfare. You cannot have both. If you have a welfare state in which every resident is promised a certain minimal level of income, or a minimum level of subsistence, regardless of whether he works or not, produces or not. Then it really is an impossible thing.”I

A paradox: it’s only good as long as it’s illegal…

Friedman went further, stating that illegal immigration across the Mexican border was a good thing both for the US and for the illegal immigrants.

“Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it is illegal.

That’s an interesting paradox. Make it legal and it’s no good. Why? Because as long as it’s illegal the people who come in do not qualify for welfare, they don’t qualify for social security, they don’t qualify for the other myriad of benefits that we pour out from our left pocket to our right pocket. So long as they don’t qualify they migrate to jobs. They take jobs that most residents of this country are unwilling to take. They provide employers with the kind of workers that they cannot get from the locals. They’re hard workers, they’re good workers, and they are clearly better off…”

A country with an inefficient public administration that systemically undermines economic growth through policy inconsistencies (proven beyond doubt especially during the Zuma-Ramaphosa term) has to feel threatened by immigration. An arsenal of social grants, free water and electricity, free tertiary education, free medical services, public works programs and direct interference in the internal decisions and operations of businesses coupled with institutional incompetence in property tax collection in vast areas of our cities, cultivates and rewards entitlement, rather than individual effort. 

Immigration in the right institutional and policy context is a force for progress and a better life for all. To unleash that creative power in South Africa will require a policy shift towards freedom, away from the nanny state concept that is implemented at a farcical level: benefits for the poor but riches for the politically well connected. 

Neither the ANC nor the DA has a grasp that the nanny state approach is a paradox in itself: the very same policy instruments intended to protect the vulnerable and the poor, undermine the self-esteem of the poor and their ability to walk tall. Rather than working for survival, tantrums of demand by protest, burning and looting is the order of the day. Contrast that with Ellis Island in New York that empowered millions without passports in a process that improved the well-being of both the immigrants and those who were in the country before their arrival

It can be replicated, but will require a fundamental policy shift away from the politics of entitlement:

For the ANC, it implies becoming more interested in economic progress than in chaining millions to obedience through social grants in a low growth economy. For the DA, a rediscovery of its oft neglected roots of liberty…  

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