Background to migration from historical and contemporary perspectives and African migrants in South Africa

Arguably, South Africa as always been a land of migration, whether voluntary or forced migration. Few are people that can be considered natives of South Africa. The Bushmen in the Kalahari Deserthave been in the country for centuries and can qualify as the only native people of South Africa. Other black people who joined and fought them over land ownership are said to have migrated from the North of Limpopo.

The European migration started in the 17th century and intensified in the 18th and 19th centuries. It involved the British colonizers and the Boers (farmers, in Afrikaans) who were descendants of Dutch, German and French Huguenot settlers who arrived in the Transvaal and Orange Free State. British and Boers had to fight against themselves over land and gold prior to turning on the Black people who occupied the territory. The Anglo-Boer wars were won by the British and ended when the Union of South Africa was established at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1948 when the National Party took power in 1948 and established a system of institutionalised racial segregation known as apartheid that was only dismantled in the early 1990s.

Unlike in other African colonies, the white colonisers in South Africa and other Southern African countries like Zimbabwe and Namibia were there to stay as they came to consider themselves the natives while the Black people became foreigners on the land of their ancestors. The country was divided into areas for the white and non-white people respectively. The Black people had to carry on permits or passes in the urban areas reserved for the White while the Black were confined to rural areas or to the “townships”. Inside the country, migration of the non-white and predominantly black people was carefully controlled. The apartheid government favoured a “temporary oscillatory migrant system” that saw labour migrants return to their country of origin after their contract in the farms or mining industry had expired (Adepoju 2006: 40; Moser 2016: 6).

The much-celebrated “Rainbow Nation”, a multicolour, multi-ethnic, multinational, multi-religious nation constituted of people from around the world was developing. The apartheid policies favoured international migration as long as it benefitted South Africa. The minority government perceived the need to enforce such policies because during this time the proportion of white South Africans with regard to the overall population was shrinking. These policies turned out to be successful when in the late 1960s more and more immigrants from Europe and North America settled in South Africa (Anderson 2006: 99—102; Moser 2016: 6—7). Throughout the 20th century, the government actively sought white settlers but in turn rigorously limited Africans to only temporary forms of legal entry in accordance with the migrant labour system. Therefore, South Africa was the only country in the region to pursue a proactive immigration policy up until the 1990s, albeit with a heavily racial undertone (Klotz 2010: 831).

The demise of apartheid in the early 1990s constituted a turning point. For a few years under the Mandela’s presidency and thanks to the leadership of the man whose liberation after 27 years of imprisonment was made possible by the solidarity of the people of the world in general and the rest of the continent in particular, South Africa continued its selective open-door immigration policy under a schizophrenic foreign policy. While claiming its strong solidarity with the rest of Africa, endorsing the rhetoric of an African renaissance and promoting African integration and succeeding in becoming the first country to host a summit of the AU that replaced the AU and later African institutions such as the Pan-African Parliament and the Secretariat of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the new South Africa was more and more closing its borders to Africans from the rest of the continent. Her laws and policies made it more and more difficult for them to enter the country to work, study, reside or even as tourists and asylum seekers. African migrants were no longer welcome. Robin Ephraim Moser reflected on migration policies and xenophobia and stressed the linkage between migration and xenophobia in post-apartheid South Africa (Moser 2016: 2—16).

Our once beloved “African brothers and sisters” turned into enemies of the Nation and were made responsible for all the ills suffered by the new South Africa: HIV/Aids, high unemployment, economic recession, drug abuses, murders and other crimes. Draconian migration legislation and policies were adopted that made it difficult for foreigners to obtain or renew tourist, study, work, residence, asylum seekers’ or refugees’ permits. The government and law enforcement agencies also actively participated in the fabrication or making of more “illegal migrants” by not responding or renewing in time the permits of those who were once legal in the country.

Worse, at some academic institutions, foreigners who had been naturalised were unfairly discriminated against as they could not be appointed or promoted like South Africans by birth or descent. A distinction was being made between native South Africa citizens or those who were naturalised sometime after apartheid and are considered second-zone South African citizens.

Since the late 1990s, post-apartheid South Africa that already excelled in Rugby seems to have invented a “new sport” as every year unwanted African black migrants are burnt to death, murdered, illegally dispossessed, arrested, detained and deported while non-African (European, American and Asian) migrants are welcome as tourists and investors coming to create jobs in the country.

Draconian migration legislation, xenophobic policies and practices do not seem to have discouraged African migrants who can also take advantage of corruption that is rampant in the public sphere to enter and independently work in South Africa. Even though their number has been grossly exaggerated by the media and some interest groups who referred to “human tsunami”, African migrants continue to migrate to South Africa.

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