Happy New Year, Patrick from Malawi

Share this article

It was a very smug me who returned home from an early morning gym session on the first day of 2014. No throbbing headache or parched mouth after a night of revelling, a condition I am well acquainted with. Not this year though, no siree. A four kilometre run followed by a two kilometre row and a full circuit workout, made me feel like the cat’s whiskers. Add a few esoteric musings on potential articles for Reprobate and I was pretty convinced that 2014 was going to be Daryll Cullinan to my Shane Warne.*

If I could do that screeching halt effect used in B-grade movies, I would do so now. Suffice to say, my self-referential reverie was broken when I got home and decided to clear our mailbox of all the piled up flyers and pamphlets. Among the inevitable smorgasbord of ads for real estate agents and flat screen TVs was a carefully torn scrap of paper with a hand written note:

I’m Patrick from Malawi. Looking for job as gardener or any handyman work. I am reliable, honest and hard working man. Contactable references available. Contact me on xxx xxxxxxx.

Done in a painstakingly neat handwriting and free of any spelling or grammatical errors (except for the missing article ‘a’ ), the note gently leveraged my head out of my backside by way of several conflicting thoughts and emotions.

There was the patronising “they sure teach them good English skills up north”, as if a person’s aptitude in the English language suddenly qualified as an empirical IQ test and evidence of his or her educational level. It is astounding how otherwise thoughtful and intelligent native English language speakers, can revert to chauvinistic prats when it comes to the perceived value of their own language.

That thought was followed by the inevitable “another illegal immigrant taking up space in our country,” despite the fact that most South Africans would blanch when pressed to define exactly who the mysterious ‘our’ in that phrase is. Of all pronouns the possessive ones are the most insidiously toxic. They often betray the hidden agenda in otherwise innocuous utterances.

How many Patricks are there in South Africa? That depends on who you ask. Your average proudly xenophobic South African would probably give a figure between 5 and 8 million illegals, the equivalent of either Denmark or Switzerland’s total population. Conversely, the number crunchers at Statistics South Africa estimated that 5.7% (just over 3 million) of the South African population in 2011 was foreign born, including both legal and illegal immigrants. Then there are the figures produced by the Forced Migration Studies Programme of the University of the Witwatersrand, who calculated the total foreign population (documented and undocumented) to be between 1.6 and 2 million in 2010. So take your pick from a maximum of 15% to a minimum of 3%, out of a total population of 53 million souls.

How does that compare globally?
Oil rich countries in the Middle East such as Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain all have ex-pat populations greater than 50% of the total population. The UAE tops the global list with an astounding 84% of the population who are foreign born.
Financial hubs and tax havens like Luxembourg, Monaco, U.S.Virgin Islands, Macau, Hong Kong and Singapore all have foreign born populations of more than 40%.
Leading GDP per capita countries such as Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have immigrant populations greater than 20% of the total population.

The above countries do not have South Africa’s high unemployment rate (25% official and 36% expanded), but that does not mean that lots of immigrants are bad for a country. The United Nations report Trends in International Migrant Stock (2013) makes for interesting reading. There is a clear divide between poorer (low GDP per capita) countries with small foreign born populations and wealthier (high GDP per capita) countries with high levels of immigration.

Scaremongering tales of pristine lands being overrun by illegal immigrants abound. The truth is that illegal immigrants are the name- and faceless workforce on whose back many prosperous industries have been built. California’s successful agricultural sector, especially the wine industry, would not exist if not for the constant stream of cheap Mexican labour. Legal and illegal immigrants are the reason why America’s demographic profile gives it an advantage over competitors like Japan with ageing, shrinking populations.
{In a Kafkaesque twist illegal immigrants in the US are often registered with the IRS and pay taxes, but are still not entitled to tax credits or social security. It is estimated that illegal immigrants paid between $40 and $50 billion in taxes to the federal government in 2010.}

Gastarbeiters, mostly from Turkey, alleviated Germany’s labour shortage in the 1950s and 1960s and played a role in that country’s Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle).

The usual rebuttal to the above examples is that the mentioned countries are developed economies that could manage and utilise the influx of unskilled labour. That may be partially true (Germany’s infrastructure was almost completely destroyed during WW2), but is it a coincidence that there are no examples of countries experiencing high immigration rates which subsequently caused economic ruin to all and sundry?

Xenophobic South Africans also have collective memory loss when it comes to the historical importance of immigrants in the economic growth of their own country. The mining industry from which much of South Africa’s wealth has sprung was established by a fresh wave of immigrants in the 19th century. Ashkenazi Jews from north eastern Europe, indentured labourers and businessmen from China, cheap male migrant labour from neighbouring countries like Mozambique and adventurers and fortune seekers from all over Europe, all played a role in the burgeoning new economy.

The sugar cane industry was literally built on the backs of indentured Indian labourers. Today Indian South Africans have the second highest income per capita of all South Africa’s population groups. For more background, read our comprehensive piece on Indian South Africans.

Most economists and research organisations agree that immigrants (legal or not) have a net positive effect on a country’s economy. You do not pack everything up and leave the cultural comforts of your home country to settle in a strange land because you want to sit on your behind and do nothing. You make the often difficult move because you have faith in the better opportunities a new country may offer. That is just simple human nature. The vast majority of immigrants are like Patrick just want that gap, that opportunity to work hard that does not exist in their own country. Often that gap may appear precarious or non-existant to the indigenous population, but the immigrant may be able to exploit it because of a different perspective or skill set, or purely being more motivated to get the job done. That is how societies innovate, grow and prosper. Many immigrants are entrepreneurs who start small to medium enterprises which in turn employ native workers.

And oh boy, do we need those entrepreneurs. Slowing economic growth coupled with the low labour intensity of current growth sectors are not creating the jobs the country so desperately needs. A culture of entitlement, government grants and shockingly low educational standards may keep the ANC in power but it is definitely not conducive to the initiative, innovation, persistence and work ethic that drives entrepreneurs and a dynamic economy. In stead we have unqualified or under-qualified incompetents riding the government and government connected gravy train. Formal labour has also done its best to keep the unofficial unemployment rate at about 40% by pricing themselves out of the market with unrealistic wage demands and low productivity rates.

And just so that any reactionaries out there don’t start nodding their heads in agreement, there is also a pervasive culture of entitlement, nepotism and old boys’ club mentality among the progeny of the Ancien Régime, aka privileged white South Africans.

Many white executives would never have been as successful in their chosen professions if they had to operate in a completely free labour market. Apartheid and the legacy of apartheid ensured and still ensures job reservation for the select few at the expense of the unknown potential of the majority. It is and has always been an access game – access to proper education and influential networks, previously known as connections.

So we need entrepreneurs, lots of them. Overly restrictive immigration laws may not necessarily be the best way to reach that goal. In any case, draconian immigration legislation creates more room for corruption a la China’s Snakehead gangs or Mexico’s coyote border smugglers. Always to the point, but not too imaginative, the Southern African version of a border smuggler is called an ‘agent’, probably ‘bloody agent’ to many who have paid their fees only to be picked up on the South African side ready to be fleeced again by corrupt border officials and police.

Xenophobic myths are part of the South African cultural fabric, a legacy of the “us and them” mentality entrenched by decades of social engineering propaganda and institutionalised racism.

There is the half-truth of a little Lagos flourishing in all major urban areas, a home away from home for that country’s least law abiding citizens. Supposed hotbeds of crime, these spatial ghettoes sprout forth multitudes of nefarious Nigerian gangsters who seduce our women with their muscular charm and concoct brazen schemes to defraud the hard working (but maybe not so bright) South African public. In fact these insouciant criminals have so little respect for the fragile fabric of our society that they supposedly masterminded the wholesale drug addiction of all South African buppies, yuppies and frustrated media types.

Yes, there are powerful Nigerian crime syndicates that operate all over the world. However, that is only one side of the coin. South African companies actively recruit highly skilled Nigerian professionals to fill positions where there are a local skills shortage. The brain drain working in our favour for once. The reality is that there were an estimated 24,000 Nigerians living in South Africa in 2011. A sizeable number of them are professionals or legit small businessmen. The logical approach would be to prosecute any criminal activity to the maximum extent of the law while welcoming bona fide immigrants who add value to our economy.

Nigerian, and for that matter, African criminal activity is small fry compared to the extent of European organised crime activity in the country:

  • Convicted drug money launderer and alleged Sicilian mafioso, Vito Palazzolo had extensive dealings with both apartheid and ANC politicians. Italian police have also confirmed the existence of a large network of Italian mafia fugitives in South Africa.
  • Convicted German swindler, Jurgen Harksen, embezzled millions and left the Democratic Alliance with egg on its face after allegations were made that Harksen made private payments to Cape Town’s DA mayor, Gerald Morkel.
  • Czech fugitive, Radovan Krejcir, is currently facing charges of kidnapping, assault and attempted murder. In 2012 he was sentenced in absentia by a Czech court to 8 years in prison for fraud.
  • Serbian fugitive, Dobrosav Gavric; Russian, Igor Russol; Moroccan, Houssain Ait Taleb; Ukrainian, Yuri Ulianitski and many others form a veritable rogues’ gallery of names that featured in the media the past few years in connection with criminal activities.
  • The list goes on and on, with second tier Euro-scoundrels involved in tax evasion, fraudulent residency, dodgy dealings in the hospitality, real estate and tourism sectors.

South African xenophobia is obviously misdirected at the most vulnerable of immigrants who live in the townships. Sometimes those myths can translate into murderous actions. In 2008 the world was shocked when at least 62 people were killed in xenophobic attacks on foreigners across the country. An additional 25,000 were driven from their homes by angry crowds accusing them of stealing jobs and involvement in crime. The orgy of violence followed the murder of almost 50 Somali traders twenty months earlier. Smaller acts of violence are committed against vulnerable immigrants living in townships on a regular basis.

Several studies have tried to make sense of the violence. The Human Sciences Research Council blamed competition for scarce jobs, customers and housing in townships, as well as excessive nationalism and South African chauvinism towards other Africans. A chauvinism that should not surprise the 65,000 women who were raped or sexually abused in 2012.

It is difficult from the comfort of your secure home and job to imagine the fear, danger and hardship endured by many illegal immigrants. In Patrick’s case the journey from Malawi over a minimum distance of 3,300 km – only if he could magically turn himself into a long distance flying crow – would probably have taken days if not weeks, since I’m pretty sure he didn’t fly into Cape Town International on a business class ticket. The journey would have involved crossing four international borders, under less than ideal conditions – try swimming across a crocodile infested Zambezi or Limpopo river and let me know how you go. Female travellers have it much, much worse. They have to contend with the constant threat of rape and sexual abuse by border officials, bandits and people smugglers.

Despite the adoption of a more progressive Immigration Act by South Africa in 2002, various human rights organisations have criticised the act and its implementation:

  • arbitrary and unlawful detentions of illegal foreigners happen with regularity and in contravention of international and domestic human rights guarantees
  • allegations of corruption and abuse of detainees by officials at the overcrowded Lindela Repatriation Centre

Before this descends into a Conradian narrative about the perils of African travel, lets take a peek at our Antipodean and Celtic friends.

  • Human rights organisations have criticised the Irish government’s policy towards illegal immigrants: detainees are kept with convicted criminals in overcrowded prison conditions; they are refused the right to notify someone of their situation and denied their right to legal representation and medical care.
  • Human Rights Watch has accused Australia of serious contraventions of its obligations to non-citizens, refugees and asylum seekers under international human rights and refugee law. The United Nations’ Refugee Agency recently described conditions in Australia’s offshore detention centres as inhumane.
  • With hunger strikes, riots and suicide attempts rife in Australian detention camps I would rather take my chances with the Limpopo’s crocodiles.

Tellingly, neither South Africa nor Australia or any other migrant-receiving state in Western Europe or North America has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families

The horrors of human trafficking and the horrendous conditions in European and North American sweatshops have been revealed countless times to an increasingly numb audience. To wake yourself up, go and watch these excellent award winning movies: Lilya-4-ever, Dirty Pretty Things, Sex Traffic.

The above just proves that life as an illegal immigrant is pretty dire whichever country you try and wriggle your unwelcome self into.

Reports of abuse and exploitation by border officials may add to the high incidence in illegal border crossings. Another seldom acknowledged fact is that the vast majority (96%) of African visitors to South Africa come from SADC countries, countries with close cultural and community ties. Cross border visits and trade have been going on for hundreds of years long before those borders even existed.

Maybe we should celebrate the changing demographic landscape of our country by finding out a bit more about the new strangers in our midst. Only by making an effort to understand their hopes and fears will South Africa be able to leverage their energy and skills to the advantage of the country as a whole. Rapidly increasing human migration is a reality of the modern global economy. The countries that figure out how to utilise the phenomenon to their advantage will be the economies of the future.

My current home town, Durbanville, is a splendid example of the rapidly changing demographic landscape of South Africa. Although it is a satellite town of cosmopolitan Cape Town, Durbanville has never been known as a culturally diverse hotspot. On the contrary it is better known as a somewhat sleepy middle class commuter hub for white, mostly Afrikaans speaking, South Africans.

All of that seems to have changed over the past few years, rapidly and visibly. My local area boasts a Pakistani cell phone shop, a Chinese takeaway joint, and I frequently bump into a Zambian student at the gym. Before we all burst out with an impassioned rendition of We are the world, I have to admit that cross cultural pollination is not nearly as visible. Out here the lamb has not yet lain with the lion.

There are many challenges surrounding migration. Dealing with them in a forward looking, big picture way would make not only humanitarian but also economic sense.

In the mean time:

Happy New Year, Patrick. I do not need a gardener or a handyman, being a poor scribbler, but I do wish you the best in 2014. May all your hopes and dreams be realised through hard work, persistence and a bit of perspective from my fellow South Africans.

*During his test cricket career, South African batsman, Daryll Cullinan, was known as Aussie bowling legend, Shane Warne’s bunny. Cullinan was dismissed on 4 occasions by Warne averaging a poor 12.75 average in test cricket against Australia.

1 thought on “Happy New Year, Patrick from Malawi

  1. I agree. Very well written, as usual. Great read and a definite new perspective.

Comments are closed.