On the 30th of September 2020, the Gauteng Provincial Government released, for public comment, what has become a contentious draft bill on township economies. The Gauteng Township Economic Development Bill’s release comes at a time when the country’s economy has slowly started to emerge from the ruins of Covid-19 related restrictions. While the Township Economy Bill would no doubt have been conceptualised before the Covid pandemic, there is no doubt that the lockdown and the light it shone on the country’s inequalities would have injected a sense of urgency into the Gauteng Provincial Government processes. Ultimately the Bill is symptomatic of the permeation of immigration as an issue within the South African body politic. In the past, immigration has vacillated between the Department of Home Affairs and vigilante groups in the townships. The former manifesting as policy and the latter through xenophobic attacks directed against immigrants, mostly of African descent.
The country goes to local government elections in 2021. And for the first time, immigration seems to be getting mainstreamed into the country’s election issues. There is no doubt, therefore, that the Gauteng Bill is in a way part of that milieu. The main political parties of the ANC, DA, EFF and the Action South Africa have raised immigration as an issue in their campaigns.
What does the Bill say about immigrants?
The Gauteng Township Bill effectively reserves township businesses to South Africans and permanent residents. Owning or operating a business in the townships is prohibited for non-South Africans. The Bill uses a positive listing of businesses that cannot be owned or run by non-citizens or permanent residents. A critical reading of the list in the Bill shows that these are in the main businesses that currently form the township informal economy. In terms of geographical coverage, the Bill will apply to townships. These are defined as places that were designated for the exclusive residence of blacks by the colonial and subsequent administrations from the late 19th century to 1994. This will in practice cover areas such as Soweto, Alexander, Thembisa and some townships in the east rand and the Vaal Triangle. One would therefore assume that townships established during the democratic era such as Cosmo City, Diepsloot among others will be excluded from the application of the Bill. This is in spite of the fact that these settlements are effectively inhabited by the demographics that are dominant in the defined townships of old.
Is there anything economic about the Gauteng Bill
A lot has been written about the Bill as being Afrophobic and anti-immigrants. However, is less has been mentioned on what could have motivated the Bill from an economic perspective. Some of the stated objectives of the Bill include formalising the township economy. This is done with an intention to enable these businesses to access government support such as incentives and capacity building programs. What the Gauteng government is trying to achieve by reserving certain areas as being exclusive for locals is global practice. However, that is usually done to protect the mom and pop stores from large retailers from big retailers and malls. This is because the big players have a crowding out effect on small and informal businesses. Diversification of ownership patterns, social protection of vulnerable groups and facilitation of new market entrants are some of the Bill’s stated positions. One area that the Bill seeks to positively address is the non-payment of taxes by most businesses operating in the townships.
What is the thinking of national government on foreigners in townships?
Currently there is no stated position by national government on non-South Africans doing business in the townships. The closest that the national government regulates economic activity by foreign nationals is through the Immigration Act of 2002. Needless to state that the Constitution guarantees a right to trade and a profession in addition to allowing government to take positive discrimination measures with a view to righting the wrongs of the past. However, in 2013, the newly formed Department of Small Business Development, led by Lindiwe Zulu gazetted a bill that sought to indirectly deal with the issue of foreigners in the townships. This was the Licensing of Businesses Bill. The Bill established a licensing mechanism for businesses.
Among other things, the Licensing of Businesses Bill provided that immigrants could only operate a business if they have a license. However, for immigrants to obtain the license, they needed to have a business visa. On the positive side, the Licensing of Businesses Bill considered asylum seekers and refugees as eligible to run businesses.
Unfortunately, the Bill seems to have proven too controversial to pass through and has been gathering dust for almost ten years. It is known that most immigrants operating businesses in the inner cities and townships are at best holders of an asylum seeker permit and at worst in the country illegally. For one to obtain a business visa they need to have at least a ZAR1 million rand. All these conditions would have de facto made it impossible for immigrants to own businesses in the townships and inner cities.
Regional and international experience
The Gauteng Provincial Government is not alone in the sectoral reservations for locals. Within the region, Tanzania has a law that reserves certain sectors to locals. These include sections of the coveted tourism sector. Zimbabwe has reserved a lot of the sectors that fall into the informal sectors for locals. For instance, hairdressing has been reserved for locals. Botswana recently published a law that reserves particular sectors to indigenous Batswana. Further afield, South Korea has had geographical limitations to big retailers as a way of protecting mom and pop shops. South Africa taking a similar route was bound to draw attention since the country is a regional economic powerhouse and attracts economic migrants. The fact that the country has experienced flare ups of xenophobic violence has not helped matters. However, the moves by the Gauteng Provincial authorities to take such an intrusive approach to regulating businesses in the townships can also be understood from a political economic angle.
The political economy of immigrants in South African townships and inner cities
South Africa has attracted economic migrants since the discovery of gold in Johannesburg in the late 19th century. Most of the migrants came from the neighbouring countries such as Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It does seem the migrants co-existed with locals both in the mines and hostels. Relatedly, it is important to note that due to the country being under colonial and later apartheid rule, migration of black persons was quite restricted. The end of apartheid in 1994 resulted in the opening of borders and an influx of economic migrants into South Africa. These came from different parts of the continent and from as far afield as Pakistan and India. The collapse of the Zimbabwean economy due to governance failures in the late nineties to early 2000s started a wave of migrants into South Africa.
Failure of the democracy’s promise and seeds of migrants resentment
South Africa society especially in the townships, which the Gauteng Bill seeks to regulate, has generally become known as anti-immigrant and Afrophobic. This is mainly because of the attacks on immigrants that rocked South African townships in 2008 leading to loss of lives. Scholars have been at pains to explain the strong anti-immigrant attitudes prevalent in South African townships. The government has stressed that it is being carried out by criminal elements and cannot be described as either xenophobic or Afrophobic. The truth lies somewhere in between. What is clear is that South Africans do not hate or fear other Africans for the sake of it. Unlike racism wherein one group is inherently prejudiced towards another based on phenotypical differences, it does seem there is an economic element underpinning the tensions between South Africans and immigrants.
Scramble for economic opportunities
Basically, it seems the failure of democracy to deliver tangible economic benefits to the bulk of South Africans has led to a scramble for resources. This scramble for jobs and economic opportunities is mostly acute among the working class. The fight for resources has pitted poor South Africans against their compatriots from the rest of the continent. However, that is not to disregard other social ills that may be legitimately attributed to some sections of the immigrant communities in the townships. Political parties had traditionally shied away from this tension. This was mostly because it was seen as not substantive enough to deliver votes. However, due to the growing inequality, the proliferation of social media and the decline in support of the governing ANC, migration has finally caught up with South African electoral politics.
Political parties sense an opportunity
As indicated, South African political parties had long shied away from migration as a political campaign tool. This could be attributed to a couple of things for different parties. One of the main considerations could be that the nature of South Africa’s transition led to a culture of inclusivity. There has generally been a frowning upon divisive politics, of which migration would fall under. Another possible explanation is that the main political parties of the ANC, DA and EFF had not felt a need to include migration in their politics because their constituencies still voted for them. However, the loss in support for the ANC, the internal dynamics within the DA and the Mashaba have necessitated the inclusion of migration policy positions in electioneering. Compounding all these factors is the rise in the use of social media. Social media platforms have given people a primary agency to issues that bother them. And social media accounts such as #PutSouthAfricaFirst, #LeratoPillay and #ZimbabweansMustGo have brought immigration to the fore.
ANC adopts a diplomatic approach, for now!
The issue of migration has thus far been mainly reflected on the politics of the ANC, Mashaba’s Johannesburg DA and lately the newly formed One Action South Africa. As a governing party and liberation movement, the ANC has been reluctant to take an anti-migrant stance. In this regard, the party has taken a softly approach on the illegal immigration from Zimbabwe. It can be argued that the South African border with Zimbabwe remains strategically porous. This allows for economic migrants from Zimbabwe to enter South Africa illegally to buy supplies and seek employment. Such movement acts as a pressure valve on the Zimbabwean situation, giving ZANU PF a breather. Until recently, the ANC had kicked the Zimbabwean immigrants’ case down the road, wishing that the issues would go away and the party elites continue to maintain an elite pact.
At a government level the ANC government has been trying to find a fine balance between allowing economic migrants who can brings skills without upsetting the local population. The moves by the Gauteng Provincial government to take an openly anti migrant stance through the Township Economic Development Bill may signal a shift from a traditionally non-chalant ANC approach to migrants. There is no doubt that the Gauteng Government is reacting to Mr. Mashaba’s Action South Africa anti-immigrant stance.
However, pressure from the broad South African public, political parties such as Action South Africa and hashtags such as #LeratoPillay have forced the ANC to engage its Zimbabwean counterpart.
The Mashaba effect
Herman Mashaba of the newly formed Action South Africa was one of the first South African politicians to really put migration at the centre of the country’s politics. After being elected Mayor of Johannesburg under a DA ticket, Mr. Mashaba took a hard-line stance against illegal immigrants in Johannesburg. His position was at odds with his then political home. He has since left the DA and formed his own party and has maintained his stance against immigrants whom he blames for a lot of social and economic ills in the country’s poor neighborhoods. Unlike most politicians, Mr. Mashaba acknowledges some of the concerns raised by locals around immigrants. His script has thus far been that he is not opposed to immigration but that such movement has to be legal. Mr. Mashaba knows that the ANC, due to corruption and other related failures will not fix borders anytime soon. Migration will be a gift that keeps on giving for some time.
Balancing a xenophobic constituency with a no borders rhetoric: The EFF Paradox
The EFF has adopted a rather strange approach to immigration, given the fact that the party’s core constituency is anti-immigrants. Essentially, the party has branded itself as Africanist in the tradition of Julius Nyerere and Muammar Gaddaffi. In this regard, the party has argued that South Africa belongs to all Africans and borders should be opened. This is a rather peculiar and impractical approach. And most importantly, it is a stance at odds with the attitude of the bulk of the EFF’s supporters towards immigrants. The author’s theory is that the EFF is being strategic. It is being strategic in that the party is aware that in the townships resides a lot of people with an immigration background. These are people originating from Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique and south western Zimbabwe. Some of them still have connections to those countries. And not all of them got their citizenship through proper means. By arguing for open borders, the EFF does not exactly wish for that to happen, but wants to psychologically make people with an immigrant background who may have gotten their citizenship in an illegal way feel welcome.
Immigration will continue to gain traction in the South African political landscape. This will increase as Covid induced inequalities worsen. The Gauteng Government approach is a harbinger of more inward focused policies from the ANC government. Chances are that the Bill is being used by the national government to test the waters. Overrall, the country has an immigration challenge. As a relatively stronger economy and stable democracy that respects human rights, the country is bound to attract immigrants. Efforts should therefore be made to acknowledge the challenges being faced by both migrant and local communities. International migration will have to be managed. It is comforting to see that the Department of Home Affairs is working on various policy iterations to address this issue. This is in addition to recently signed Border Management Act. The 2021 local government elections will prove the extent to which immigration has become a political issue in South Africa. There is a high likelihood that the country will join countries such as Germany, the US, UK among others wherein immigration has become a political football.
Mr Azwimpheleli Langalanga is a Senior Associate: International Trade and Investment Policy at Tutwa Consulting Group. He writes in his personal capacity.