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Providing services to undocumented foreign migrants in informal settlements

Isandla Institute | 2022-08-17 | 764 views

The gang rape of eight women in Krugersdorp last month has once again turned the spotlight on African foreign migrants in South Africa. Following the horrific incident, the South African Police Service (SAPS) has been cracking down on illegal miners, known as zama zamas, who were believed to be the attackers. Residents of the West Rand also took matters into their own hands, setting several homes alight and raiding mine shafts and houses in search of illegal miners.

The vigilantism resembled the attacks against foreign nationals and their businesses in May 2008, when an estimated 62 people were killed and scores injured in Johannesburg in one of the country’s worst xenophobic attacks. Since then, intimidation of and attacks on African foreign nationals have continued, sometimes in an orchestrated manner, when sparked by a specific incident or utterances of leaders (such as the late King Goodwill Zwelithini's comment in 2015 that “foreigners must pack their bags and go home”). Other incidents have been linked to ongoing campaigns such as Operation Dudula (premised on a campaign of various facets of anti-foreign sentiment ).

While the majority of illegal miners are alleged to be foreign nationals, it is important to remember that not all foreign nationals are criminals. Additionally, not all African migrants are here illegally and not all migrants want to be here illegally. Due to administrative inefficiencies, refugees often cannot get the documentation needed to extend their stay legally. And there are few legal avenues for migration for low- or semi-skilled migrants and small-scale traders. This makes it often impossible for foreign migrants who want to be in the country legally to follow the right channels.

The problem with xenophobia and Afrophobia is that it doesn’t differentiate between those who legally have the right to stay, those who want to be in the country legally but are unable to secure this right, and those who use criminal means to gain a foothold in the country. Moreover, it also doesn’t differentiate between people who want to (and do) make a positive contribution to society and those who have complete disregard for the law and for other people.

Politicians, policy makers and government representatives should be able to keep these distinctions clear and respond with discernment, whilst keeping the Bill of Rights uppermost in their minds. Yet, a growing number of politicians have been expressing sentiments against foreign – and more particularly, African – nationals. During his tenure as Mayor of the City of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba explicitly targeted African foreign nationals as being the source of the city’s problems, and in particular crime, misconstruing police statistics to suit this narrative. More recently, Patriotic Alliance head, Gayton McKenzie, made a statement saying that foreign nationals are a burden to the country’s services. These statements follow a pattern, where politicians use (African) foreign nationals as scapegoats for the challenges faced by the country, rather than addressing the issues at hand, such as poor service delivery, unemployment and a spiralling crime rate.

A large proportion of foreign migrants, both ‘documented’ and ‘undocumented’, are economically vulnerable, work in the informal economy and live in informal settlements. Like other residents in informal settlements, they face the challenges of inadequate services such as water, sanitation or refuse removal and substandard housing. Like other informal settlement residents, they are often either ignored by the state or blamed for their poverty and living conditions. But as the government has shifted its focus from housing provision to informal settlement upgrading, municipalities are increasingly asking for guidance on how to ‘deal with’ the issue of foreign nationals in informal settlements.

The Constitution is, however, clear: the right of access to health, dignity and basic services like water apply to all who reside within South Africa’s borders. Government further has a responsibility to ensure that no harm comes to anyone living in the country and that a safe and healthy environment is created.

The Municipal Systems Act provides that municipalities must ensure that all local residents have access to at least the minimum level of basic municipal services. In cases where an informal settlement has not been formally recognised or earmarked for upgrading (a decision which facilitates a more progressive rollout of basic services and development), municipalities are still obliged to ensure access to basic services. Put differently, for informal settlements the provision of basic services should be a spatially targeted approach (applying equally to all residents in that area), rather than one based on household characteristics, including the nationality or immigration status of those who live in a given settlement.

Of course, informal settlement upgrading does not equate to the provision of basic services, despite dominant views and practices to the contrary. It should fundamentally be about the incremental improvement of an area, resulting in a dignified, vibrant, safe and functional neighbourhood. Investments in the public realm are in the public interest and therefore should not differentiate between South African citizens and foreign nationals with/without legal status. The complexity arises when household level eligibility criteria come up, such as possible ownership of a plot or in the case of subsidised housing.[1] These issues need clarification so that they don’t hold up immediate investment in improved living conditions.

In the meantime, public representatives should bring leadership and nuance to the highly sensitive and volatile issue of African foreign nationals, whilst tackling the socio-economic and governance realities that generate fertile ground for xenophobic sentiments to thrive.

[1] Government has made it clear that informal settlement upgrading no longer includes housing consolidation (Phase 4 of the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme), so the issue of eligibility may not arise in the same way.

Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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