Xenophobia and the economics of our crappy immigration policies

24 April 2015

This xenophobia thing, we have been having it. We are reading and writing about how awful this stain is, this blot on our national flag, the weevil in our moral fibre. We are better than this, we wail. We denounce this violence in our name.

Sorry if I sound a bit soapboxy. We’re all a bit soapboxy at the moment. Even this post you are reading is flecked with the spittle of attempted moral suasion disguised as an economic argument. I want to suggest that our restrictive immigration policies end up helping skilled South African workers and penalising the unskilled and unemployed. By commission or omission, we’ve transferred the economic losses of immigration to poor South Africans.

It’s hard enough to work and live in South Africa if you’re a foreigner that’s here legally. Visa requirement are already onerous. Two months ago, before our xenophobia got really ugly and when we were still debating the best way to tackle child trafficking, the government announced that it would make things more difficult for skilled immigrants to move to South Africa and to live here.

Anecdotal evidence, I have it, and I suspect that you have it too. In 2006 I took an digsmate to Lesotho for the day. Actually, it was for the few minutes it took us to get the exit and entry visas she needed to stay in the country a bit longer. So I can’t really say I’ve seen Lesotho, although I’d love to go back.

Another friend is a freshly-minted medical graduate who has lived in South Africa for a decade, been through our secondary and tertiary education system, but has battled to start her community service because of hold-ups at Home Affairs. The Department of Health has had to intervene to ungum the cogs at Home Affairs.

Both of these stories involve people born in European countries who did things the legal route, Lesotho round-tripping notwithstanding. If it’s this tough for legal immigrants, how much harder is it for refugees and illegal immigrants?

If you practice your French with the lady packing the shelves or the man watching your car, sometimes you might find that she was a nurse or he was an engineering student back in the DRC. Not in every case, because immigrants bring skills and education across the spectrum, just like South Africans.

The dots between policy and economic effect are not hard to see. Many skilled immigrants are doing unskilled work. Many unskilled immigrants are also doing unskilled work, often for less money than unskilled South Africans. Many South Africans and immigrants are unemployed, and most of them are unskilled.

There is a shortage of skilled workers in South Africa. Most skilled South Africans are employed, and employed as skilled labour. Or they’ve started their own businesses, which is also easier when you’re born here.

Government’s plan to date for increasing skilled labour has been to narrow the supply through targeted job areas (so-called Exceptional Skills visas) and targeted countries (medical staff from Cuba, for example). The effects of this policy do not threaten the livelihoods of skilled workers in the public and private sectors.

I’m not debating the merits of open versus closed border policies, or reforms to refugee policies. My views are fairly libertarian: open borders and free movement. Feel free to dismiss them as the ravings of an ideologue.

But let’s look at what we have, not what would be nice. Reliable estimates put the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa at about 2 million. The total number of immigrants has been estimated at between 3 and 10 million people, which we can probably narrow down a bit to between 5 and 8 million people.

That’s between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the South African population. That would be a huge shock to any economy. As a country, we’ve managed to localise most of the blast damage and contain it in townships and informal settlements, like we usually do.

I know I’m getting soapboxy, but bear with me a little bit longer. As a country we are not unique in fearing immigrants. As a country we are not unique in framing the problem of xenophobia as one of economic conflict and a scramble for opportunities at the bottom of the ladder. As a country we are also not unique in designing and implementing an immigration policy that provides ground cover for skilled workers at the expense of the unskilled and unemployed.

It’s just that, right here and now, some of us are stabbing and burning immigrants in the street, while the rest of us march against this terrible thing that is being done in our name. We didn’t do it. It’s not who we are.

Friends, I am not saying that we should not fight against xenophobia or stop supporting its victims. I am saying that we should stop and think about how we are connected to it. I ask you to imagine a world where we let in skilled immigrants, where your car guard is competing for your job and you stand to lose more than the change in your pocket.

I ask you to imagine a world where your relationship to immigrants would not be so benign and abstract, where you would really be tested in your qualities of mercy and compassion. If we had to gird our loins and take a hit on our paychecks, would we still feel as friendly to our new neighbours?

I am asking you to examine your connection to the violence. I’m getting off the soapbox now. The shockwaves have spread from the epicentre of the problem. They can’t be contained any longer.


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