IN-DEPTH: Migrants scapegoated in South Africa as inequality and unemployment surge

Even Julius Malema, the leader of Economic Freedom Fighters, who also bills himself as a Pan-Africanist, joined the pre-election anti-immigrant rhetoric, saying employers should desist from prioritising immigrants at the expense of South African citizens. Last month, he visited restaurants in the Gauteng Province to check the employment ratio between South African citizens and foreign nationals.

Malema now appears to have come to the conclusion that the problem is employers who prioritize foreign workers because they could exploit them. “Do not hate the foreigners – hate the owner of the restaurant, because those foreigners did not hire themselves,” Malema told openDemocracy.

It’s a theory shared by other Pan-Africanists in the country. Malema’s observation “is a starting point to exploring exploitation and how it is used to divide and conquer,” says Dr Metji Makgoba Makgoba, a political analyst who describes himself as a Pan-Africanist.

This perspective argues that by employing the least protected workers over nationals, South Africa’s white monopoly capital is pitting Black people against each other, in a race to the bottom: exploitation or unemployment.

But claims that migrants are a significant contributor to South Africa’s employment are hard to square with the evidence. They make up only 4% of the population, according to the labor department. Even in Gauteng, the province with the largest foreign-born population, only 8% of the working population are migrants, according to a 2014 report by the International Labor Organisation. “If we remove all foreign nationals today, unemployment will still be around 33.5% nationally and 45.5% for young people,” said NUMSA’s Hlubi-Majola.

Also hard to square is the view that migrant workers, unlike all others, are net-takers rather than net-givers to the economies where they invest their labour. “I am from Zimbabwe. I came to South Africa in 2004 and have established a logistics business which currently employs almost 45 South Africans and 17 foreigners,” business owner Sam Musara told openDemocracy.

Shenilla Mohamed, executive director of Amnesty International, said: “It is easy to blame foreign nationals, refugees and asylum seekers for the country’s high unemployment problems, but the fact of the matter is that an economy like South Africa cannot rely on local skills alone to grow and create jobs.”

It’s the perspective that the country’s unionists agree with. If anything, they say that politicians are fanning the flames of xenophobia to distract the masses from the fact that they are presiding over an economy that only works for a wealthy minority like themselves. “Radical changes need to be made to transform the South African economy in a meaningful way, so that it benefits the majority of people, and not a wealthy minority,” Hlubi-Majola said.

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