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Myths and realities: Are migrants the real problem in South Africa?




WHY are members of Operation Dudula and other South Africans blaming African migrants for many of the social problems in the country, such as the high crime rate, prostitution and unemployment? The word “migrant” carries negative connotations in South Africa.

Migrants leave their countries of origin for various reasons, among them to improve their economic position, due to political persecution, as well as civil wars and other factors that endanger their lives. Many migrants seek refugee in other countries not because they want to but they are forced to. 

Migrants are weak, voiceless and powerless social groups in many host countries and yet they are blamed for a myriad of social, economic, political and cultural problems. 

Even though, in most cases, migrants are victims of societal prejudice, discrimination and state-led structural and institutional marginalisation, they are ironically viewed as powerful social agents who can have negative social, cultural, economic, and even political, influence. 

What is evident is that most of the many problems associated with the presence and activities of migrants are exaggerated and are caricatured stories unsubstantiated by facts and everyday realities. 

Across much of the globe, discourses and narratives about migrants are framed in negative terms and usually turn immigration into an undesirable phenomenon that must be stopped.

Particularly in this day and age, when anti-refugee and anti-immigration right-wing socio-political movements have appeared in many countries, migrants are seen as harmful, even though they are often the victims of harm, and a threat that must be removed from the host society. 

Many social ills in host countries are blamed on migrants and, in most cases, politicians and anti-immigration radical activists are the ones who manufacture myths about refugee communities. 

In South Africa, African refugees have been blamed for many socio-economic problems and, recently, anti-refugee sentiment and violence have increased as myths about them gain momentum. 

What are some of the common myths and realities associated with refugees in South Africa? 

African refugees are blamed for unemployment and for taking jobs from South Africans. This discourse has been so widely circulated they are automatically seen as job takers and hence a cause of unemployment. But this is not backed by facts. 

First, the unemployment problem is a structural one caused by multiple economic factors and has nothing to do with the presence of African refugees in the country. 

Second, unemployment is also caused by government policy, governance and planning loopholes. 

Third, non-South Africans, including refugees, are institutionally excluded from the formal labour market and South Africans have full access to it. Many refugees work in the informal sector, such as street vendors, to survive, due to their marginalisation in the formal labour market.  

Refugees are also blamed for rising the crime rate and illegal activities, such as selling drugs and prostitution. However, the high crime rate is not due to the presence of migrants but due to individual acts by South Africans and non-South Africans alike. Crime also affects both South Africans and non-South Africans alike. 

Types of crime, such as selling drugs, tend to be, for example, linked to particular groups of migrants coming from a particular country. 

This association is erroneous and misguided and tends to stereotype all migrants coming from a certain country as drug criminals. Migrants as a social category do not commit crimes but individual migrants do — the same as South Africans as a national group do not commit crimes but individual South Africans do. 

It is the government’s failure to deal with crime and criminals that is to blame because the state has the mandated responsibility to maintain peace and security for its citizens and non-citizens alike. 

Irresponsible politicians and public figures also heighten myths and negative stereotypes about migrants to score political points by disseminating exaggerated and unsubstantiated stories about them. 

Instead of striving to establish intergroup social cohesion and solidarity between South African citizens and non-citizens, some political elites pit communities against each other and create animosity and conflict which disrupt the economic and social life of both South Africans and non-South Africans. 

We all have the responsibility to expose lies and divisive narratives about migrants and instead disseminate stories of tolerance, togetherness, pan-Africanism and intercommunal solidarity which go a long way to create a prosperous and progressive social environment in South Africa and on the continent. 

About the writer: Dr Amanuel Isak Tewolde is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.–Mail & Guardian.