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Sorry plight of foreigners in South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown

May 29th, 2020
topic:Migration
by:Cyril Zenda
located in:South Africa, Zimbabwe, United Kingdom, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, India
tags:Africa, Coronavirus, COVID-19, human rights, immigration, NGO, StrongerTogether, xenophobia

Many foreigners are seeking to leave South Africa, carrying with them harrowing stories of the harsh treatment they have received from authorities since lockdown started on March 27.

When South Africa won the Rugby World Cup against England on November 2 last year, there was wild jubilation across the African continent, which had embraced the South African national rugby side, the Springboks, as their team in their final showdown against England.

Most mainstream British media outlets attributed their side’s disastrous outing in Yokohama, Japan, to the beastly exploits of one player, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira. “England had no answer to the brute force of The Beast... Tendai Mtawarira’s demonstration of power drove England to the edge - and South Africa to the top of the world…” lamented a report in the Daily Mail.

However in light of South Africa’s blotted reputation, tainted by recurrent bouts of xenophobic violence, in the midst of the chanting, cheers and tears, the irony wasn’t lost on some, who picked out that this hero who spear-headed the demolition of the English side was also one of those immigrants that the ordinary South African would love to hate with a murderous passion.

“Let’s not forget Zimbabwe also won the World Cup today”, tweeted South African rapper AKA, who has over four million followers on Twitter. “Now, that’s definition of #StrongerTogether.” The Springbok’s World Cup campaign had been running under the hash tag #StrongerTogether.

Zac Elkin, a South African sports journalist also pointed out that the presence of Zimbabwean-born and raised Tendai Mtawarira in the victorious South African side could not be underestimated in the face of recurrent xenophobic attacks across the country.

“In South African rugby circles (and in wider society too), Mtawarira serves as a poster of the value foreign nationals can bring to South Africa. He is also a prompt to the notion that all lives matter.”

Elkin said it was not long ago that South Africans were welcomed in many African countries as they sought refuge from the horrors of apartheid.

“Now that the shoe is on the other foot (to some extent), we should be willing to do the same for others. Mtawarira represents the fight against xenophobia and his place in the squad is fitting and relevant.”

It appears like the #StrongerTogether spirit ended with Rugby World Cup victory and has not been applicable in the country’s fight against the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Rights groups raise furore

Local and regional human rights organisations have regularly been raising the red flag concerning the treatment that foreigners have been exposed in South Africa since the fight against the Coronavirus started.

The millions of foreigners living in South Africa have excluded from government support – primarily food – prompting these rights organisations to protest on their behalf.

On May 20, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement urging the South African government to take urgent steps to facilitate support, including from donors, for refugees and asylum seekers with little access to food and other basic necessities during the on-going nationwide lockdown.

“South Africa should make special efforts to protect the most vulnerable in the country and ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not overlooked or forgotten,” HRW Southern Africa director Dewa Mavhinga said in a statement issued on May 20. “The authorities should act and seek donor support to avert an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.”

According to Mavhinga, after receiving numerous pleas from refugees and asylum seekers, HRW raised the issue with the South African Human Rights Commission, which confirmed receiving similar reports and has also been pressing the authorities to ensure that everyone in South Africa can realise their full rights.

On May 12, the rapporteur for South Africa of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (African Commission), Solomon Ayele Dersso, sent a letter of appeal to the host government pleading for the protection of the rights of vulnerable groups that include refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the context of the lockdown measures in force.

In March the Commission made a similar appeal, seeking to ensure that undocumented refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa have access to basic services.

Left to NGOs

With the state shirking responsibility for the well-being of foreigners within its borders, the task for taking care of these vulnerable groups have been left to non-governmental organisation such as Gift of the Givers, to provide shelter, food and other basic needs to these millions that suddenly find themselves stranded in the land of their dreams. With most public places closed, it has become a nightmare for these foreigners to access not just food, but contraceptives and anti-retroviral drugs for those who are HIV-positive, among other needs.

Into the bargain, the government says only businesses employing locals will be allowed to reopen in the post-COVID era, only firms with majority South African workforce qualify for government bail-out and proof of local ownership will be mandatory for new businesses, among other raft of measures specifically meant to shut the county’s economy to foreigners.

Unable to go out to forage for food in the extended lockdown, these starving foreigners are surrendering themselves to authorities in their droves, so that they can be deported to their home countries. Daily neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique are receiving busloads of these deportees.

Stereotypical perceptions

As in other cases of xenophobic attacks, the South African attacks – also called Afrophobia as they almost exclusively target only citizens from other African countries – are always stereotypically premised on the belief that foreigners, both documented and undocumented, are to blame for the country’s fast-growing social and economic woes.

About 70 percent of about 3.6 million documented foreigners in South Africa come from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho. The remaining 30 percent is made up of people from Malawi, United Kingdom, Namibia, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), India and other countries. The other millions are however undocumented, being the low calibre immigrants that simply enter the country’s porous borders to joint the country’s huge informal sector or to provide cheap labour in mines, farms, restaurants, retails shops and other labour intensive sectors.

“There are many people in art, sport and business who clearly contribute (positively) to South Africa, but xenophobia remains,” Professor Loren Landau from the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand said in an interview. “People do not have an issue with exceptional imports. It’s the fear of entry-level labour and small businesspeople that is mobilised in to violence.”

Research findings

A 2018 report How Immigrants Contribute to South Africa’s Economy and joint project carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Centre, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the European Commission revealed that foreigners has played a pivotal role to the development of the South African economy – Africa’s second biggest. The report also put to rest stereotypical perceptions that foreigners were a drain of the country’s socio-economic resources.

UPDATE 28 June 2020

Court orders South Africa to extend help to immigrants

At the he start of the COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa in March, the government introduced a social relief grant of R350 ($20) for citizens, but asylum-seekers and other immigrants were being denied any form of help. There were many reports of starvation among immigrants, which prompted Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, a local non-governmental organisation, to approach the courts on behalf of these immigrants. There was huge relief among immigrant communities when the court ruled in their favour.

Sally Gandar, the centre’s Head of Advocacy and Legal Advisor, said when this Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant was announced, it was explained that this grant was designed as a safety net to assist the most vulnerable – persons who were not able to access any other form of economic or social relief, such as unemployment benefits or one of the other types of grants available.

“This was a positive step by the government, and one we applaud as it adopts a harm reduction approach to managing the impacts of the pandemic and the imposed lockdown.

“However, when the criteria for eligibility was announced, it was the same criteria as is used for ‘normal’ grants – that is that only citizens, permanent residents and refugees may be eligible. The relevant legislation makes it possible for broader access to social relief of distress assistance when a disaster has been declared.”

She said Scalabrini Centre challenged the exclusion of certain asylum seekers and special permit holders from eligibility for the grant on this basis.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
South Africa Zimbabwe United Kingdom Mozambique Lesotho Malawi Namibia Swaziland India
Local and regional human rights organisations have regularly been raising the red flag concerning the treatment that foreigners have been exposed in South Africa since the fight against the Coronavirus started.
South Africa should make special efforts to protect the most vulnerable in the country.
“There are many people in art, sport and business who clearly contribute (positively) to South Africa, but xenophobia remains.”