Why are they not in their countries, President Zuma?

“Why are their citizens not in their countries?” asked President Zuma at a rally on South Africa’s Freedom Day.

President Jacob Zuma
President Jacob Zuma

He was speaking on the problem of savage xenophobic killings and looting that have soiled his country’s brand as the Rainbow Nation, a supposedly progressive island on a continent that is often blighted by war, poverty and famine.

The rhetorical question was probably addressed to his fellow leaders on the African continent. After all, it is their citizens who have found refuge in South Africa and also found themselves on the receiving end of savage treatment by marauding and vicious gangs in recent weeks.

Those leaders in turn have been critical. Among them was Zimbabwe’s leader, President Robert Mugabe, who, rather belatedly, criticised the treatment of foreigners in South Africa. He is also the current SADC and AU chairperson and presumably spoke in those capacities, too. President Zuma was not amused and has responded to his colleagues’ criticism.

“What prompts these refugees to be in South Africa? It’s a matter we cannot shy away from discussing” said Zuma.

Clearly, he believes the source of the problems is to be found in other African countries, from where the migrants in South Africa are fleeing.

These are hard questions. But they are also necessary, if inconvenient, questions. As he rightly said, it is a matter that must be discussed.

I speak from a Zimbabwean perspective because that is the experience that I have, as a Zimbabwean migrant, and I know many of my countrymen and women reside in South Africa and I understand the reasons they trekked down south, leaving the discomfort of home.

But first of all, let’s kill any idea that there is a connection between the killings and looting that has happened and the presence of foreign nationals in South Africa.

South Africa is not the first country to host foreigners. Neither will it be the last. Many countries host migrants from other countries. Even Zimbabwe itself has migrants.

Maybe President Zuma had a momentary lapse of memory, but the United Kingdom and Australia, are home to thousands of South African migrants. A few years ago, I lived on a small European island. My “homeboys” there were white and black South Africans. Many of them. We had all left home, for different reasons and we were happily employed. Leaders of those countries might as well be asking him the same question: Why are your citizens in our countries?

Zimstats, the Zimbabwean statistics agency recently reported that 45% of all labour migrants in the country are from South Africa. President Mugabe might as well ask him, “Why are your people here?”

Just last week, European leaders gathered to find a way to assist migrants who are risking their lives everyday, crossing the sea in makeshift boats, fleeing Africa for Europe. Many are dying at sea, but that has not stopped the tide of migration.

The fact of the matter is that migration is as old as the story of nation-states itself. People migrate for different reasons. There are push factors – those that force people out, such as war, poverty, oppression, unemployment, etc. Then there are pull factors – those that attract people to countries – peace, jobs, pursuit of opportunities, etc.

South Africans move, too, for various reasons. But there are no mobs lynching them because they have left South Africa. So no, talking about migration and xenophobic kiilngs in the same line is wrong.

Foreigners face resistance everywhere they go because human beings, like most animals, are very territorial and selfish. We like to map our territories and keep out intruders. Those who are berating South Africans for xenophobic behaviour and attitudes forget that they are no better.

A decade or so ago, miffed by urban dwellers who had abandoned the ruling party for the opposition, President Mugabe denigrated them as the “totemless”. He was referring to the descendants of Malawian and Zambian migrants in the high-density areas of Mbare, Highfields and similar suburbs. Most Zimbabweans are identified by their clan names and totems. These migrants do not have totems, hence the notion of the “totemless” – vasina mitupo.

In fact, Zimbabwean authorities went further and stripped thousands of Zimbabweans of their citizenship on the basis that they held or had a claim to citizenship of another country.

This ban on dual citizenship affected thousands of migrants, including many young people born and bred in Zimbabwe and knew no other home and spoke no other language apart from Shona or Ndebele. Many of these were poor farmworkers and mineworkers, descendants of migrants from neighbouring countries including Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.

It wasn’t until the new constitution was adopted in 2013 that their citizenship was restored. In between they were stateless. They could not access identity and travel documents. They could not register as voters and were not eligible to vote in national elections. Most of these were black Africans. They were not lynched by marauding gangs but they were terrorised by the state. It was xenophobia by another name.

In the UK, one political party, UKIP has gained political capital out of the migration fears in the country. In the outgoing Parliament, UKIP had gained two seats in the Westminster parliament, a big achievement for what has otherwise been a fringe party. It exploits the fear of foreigners among locals. Some of these reviled foreigners are South Africans. In continental Europe, in countries like France, Far Right parties have gained traction on the back of the migration issue.

So no, President Zuma cannot speak as if South Africa is a self-contained island. Equally, African leaders, including our own leaders in Zimbabwe, should not cast stones at South Africa as if their own hands are clean. They have had their own fair share of xenophobic attitudes and conduct in the past, for which they have never apologised. None of them have clean hands.

Yet, having said this, it would be foolish to dismiss completely the questions posed by President Zuma. Why are so many African migrants in South Africa? Why have so many Africans taken refuge in South Africa? President Zuma should not forget of course that there are many other non-black African migrants in his country. His question must not be discriminatory, pointing only to African migrants.

But as a Zimbabwean, I would also remind him of the infamous words of his predecessor, President Thabo Mbeki who upon landing in Harare in 2008 at the height of the election impasse asked, “Crisis? What crisis?” when asked about the crisis in Zimbabwe. Those words encapsulated his approach and South Africa’s towards Zimbabwe.

South Africa has molly-coddled the Zimbabwean regime for a long time. The crisis in Zimbabwe which could have been solved decisively long back had South Africa used its leverage is the reason many of its migrants are in that country. They are political and economic refugees fleeing a crisis.

Only recently, in July 2013 Zimbabwe held elections that were highly controversial. There were serious legitimacy issues with those elections which were brought before President Zuma and SADC. They took no notice. Instead, they accepted the results and feted Mugabe, giving him the SADC and AU chairmanship. At the time, some of us said both Zimbabwe and the region, particularly South Africa, would bear the cost of the stolen election. The economy would respond the only way it knows best – negatively. And it has.

We laughed when President Mugabe bemoaned the era of the Government of National Unity, saying he was relieved it was over. We thought differently. We thought the GNU era had actually given relief to the majority of ordinary citizens and that things would turn for the worse under Zanu PF’s exclusive rule. Because we knew Zanu PF had not only stolen the election but that it had no clue and would struggle to attract the capital and investment that Zimbabwe needs to boost the economy.

But President Zuma probably wanted to rid himself of the Zimbabwean problem. He was tired. He no longer wanted the facilitation role, which he had taken over from President Mbeki. We did not believe that the controversial election had resolved the problems weighing upon Zimbabwe’s economy.

Right now, as they old their Summit in Harare, there are by-elections scheduled for June 10 and the violence and intimidation has already begun. In Hurungwe, one of the constituencies where a by-election looms, people are being viciously attacked. Temba Mliswa, the opposition candidate there, is facing a torrid time, along with his backers. An opposition MP was savagely attacked by ruling party youths just a few days ago. Old habits die hard and for Zanu PF the same old methods are never too old or uncivilised as long they can produce a result. All this gives credence for the main opposition MDC’s refusal to participate in the by-elections and the reasons broadly why Zimbabwe remains a mess.

We used to say Zimbabwe’s problems had ceased to be a foreign policy issue for South Africa, but that they had become a matter of domestic policy, given the influx of Zimbabweans fleeing economic problems caused by the political logjam. For that reason, South Africa had a vested interest in resolving Zimbabwe’s political problem. But President Mbeki had shown greater inclination towards President Mugabe and Zanu PF, helping to save them after they had subverted the will of Zimbabweans in 2008.

The era of President Zuma, which had promised so much when it started, sadly delivered little. This is not to excuse the weaknesses of the Zimbabwean opposition. I know from experience that the South African facilitation team often felt let down by opposition negotiators. But that is for another day.

But the fact is, the July 2013 elections, which President Zuma and SADC accepted as legitimate, failed to resolve the problems in Zimbabwe. They did not fulfil their mandate. Instead, things simply went back to the pre-2009 crisis.

The result is that more and more Zimbabweans have chosen to vote with their feet, leaving Zimbabwe for neighbouring countries, with South Africa, Botswana and Namibia being the most favoured destinations.

The reasons are simple. There are no jobs in Zimbabwe. There is no hope for young people in Zimbabwe. More than half the young people I met in Harare on my recent trip told me that they would leave Zimbabwe as soon as they got an opportunity. Many young relatives asked for money to get a passport. They just wanted to go somewhere, far away from the land of no hope.

President Zuma asks why Zimbabweans are in South Africa. He was pictured dancing with President Mugabe’s wife on a recent state visit to South Africa. At the time, the xenophobic violence had already started in Kwazulu-Natal. Maybe he should have moved closer to Zimbabwe’s First Lady on the dance-floor and whispered into her ear – “Hey, madam, but why are your people here?” Maybe he would have got an answer to his question. But clearly, he didn’t.

Instead, they danced the night away and ate cake. President Mugabe even thanked South Africa for hosting desperate Zimbabweans. Maybe he should have asked him then. He should have asked him why Zimbabweans were leaving their homes for South Africa.

And maybe since President Zuma and his SADC colleagues are in Harare this week, he should ask President Mugabe why his people are in South Africa.

President Zuma said he had been told that some immigrants in South Africa say “if you raise your voice in country X you disappear”. He did not name the country.

But if he listens carefully to the voices in the streets of Harare, he might learn that a certain young man called Itai Dzamara dared to raise his voice and on March 9th 2015, he disappeared. He has not been seen or heard from since that day. His family are suffering. The state has refused to take responsibility. Maybe, just maybe, he might want to ask his Zimbabwean counterpart what’s really going on here or what happened to the young man?

South Africa had an opportunity to help sort out Zimbabwe’s challenges. The recipe of appeasement and brotherhood they used didn’t work out quite well. Zimbabwe is still a mess and its citizens will continue to follow the path of least resistance.

Yet President Zuma is right about one thing. Fellow African countries need to take responsibility and sort out their problems. For as long as there are problems in those countries, people will continue to leave, even if there is xenophobia in South Africa.But South Africa should be bolder and not continue to give comfort and protection to regimes that preside over the problems forcing their people to flee. Peace, democracy and development in fellow African countries is in South Africa’s interest and it should use its leverage to promote these key goals. A policy of appeasement on the basis of liberation brotherhood will not take it far.

This is what humans do, and what they have done for centuries. South Africa may be bad for xenophobia, but for many, it is not nearly as bad as Zimbabwe, where hope diminishes every day.

My nephew sent me a message two days ago. He wants bus fare. He wants to go to South Africa. I told him things are not well there. They don’t want foreigners. “Tonozvioenarako sekuru,” he said. We will find ways there, uncle.

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Post published in: Africa News

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