The DA has made immigration one of its key concerns ahead of the 2019 elections but is quick to explain that its proposed controls would not mirror “crude nationalism, best typified by the Trumpian call to simply build a wall”.
Migrant organisations have condemned the party’s cheap electioneering, despite the DA’s insistence that it is not emulating the global rise in populist and right-wing immigration postures and policies.
Prince Abenge, the executive delegate for the African Solidarity Network, said it is not uncommon to see a rise in xenophobic statements from politicians as they campaign for votes. “The main problem is we are going to elections in 2019, and prior to every election in South Africa, there is an upsurge in xenophobic mindsets, attacks and violence. So every politician wants to get votes using xenophobic utterances. That’s exactly what’s happening with the ANC, the DA and other parties as well,” said Abenge.
The DA’s spokesperson on immigration, Jacques Julius, explained the party’s stance on immigration as a way to right the wrongs of the ANC-led government, and make “the country what it could be”, a slogan uncomfortably close to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”.
“We want to move away from the notion of building a wall, but what we are saying is that the border fences must be reinforced,” he said. Under the DA, there will be an increased military presence along the borders to protect the country. “We need them (the military) there for the safety of our country. It is not just for the safety of our country, but to keep illegal immigrants out of the country.”
Julius said that contrary to criticism, the DA’s plan to enforce stricter immigration controls will prevent xenophobia and xenophobic attacks from happening. He said xenophobia festered in communities because “there was a perception that people aren’t getting service delivery because they have to share with immigrants”.
“The populist view would be to continue to ignore it. The DA is brave enough to take [immigration] on,” he said, adding that he believed the DA has 100% support from within its structures on its immigration stance.
Migrants as scapegoats
Solly Msimanga, the party’s Gauteng premier candidate, told a press conference on 15 October that the province battled to provide services to its residents because of “an influx of people due to both urbanisation and undocumented immigration”.
“The burden of uncontrolled and undocumented immigration is a direct result of the ANC failing to regulate the entry of immigrants into our country,” he said. “Our borders remain porous because the ANC government cares little about the challenges that this province faces as a result of illegal immigration.”
Msimanga said the loss of faith in the ANC-led government and the distrust of “foreign nationals” has resulted in xenophobic attacks. “It is high time we secure our borders to ensure that we can deliver to Gauteng residents the quality of services they deserve.”
He also said a DA-led government in Gauteng would prioritise the strengthening of border security and ensure undocumented immigrants were regularised and assisted in leaving the country if they didn’t meet the criteria for remaining.
The African Diaspora Forum has already taken Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba to task for his conservative views on immigration. Amir Sheikh, chairperson for the Somali Community Board, said that after Mashaba’s controversial statements about immigration, the DA’s stance on immigration was nothing new from the party.
He described the policy as “Trump-like”, but said it was not just the DA that viewed migrants in Johannesburg and South Africa as a problem. The White Paper on International Migration and the Border Management Authority Act are two pieces of ANC-backed legislation that seek stricter immigration controls.
The Institute for Race Relations also entered the fray recently with a letter to Business Day in which it stated that the DA’s “anti-immigrant message will resonate and align the party with racial nationalist and xenophobic sentiment” to win votes.
South Africans are “highly xenophobic”, Abenge said, because politicians convince potential voters that immigrants are the reason they don’t fulfil their promises. “Political leaders are using xenophobic discourse to convince the people they are taking care of South African citizens … They want to deliver services to South African people, but there is a hindrance, and it is the massive presence of foreign nationals in the country. That’s where the DA is also going because they need votes,” Abenge said.
Reverend Raphael Bahebwa Kabambire, president of the Congolese Solidarity Campaign, also put the DA’s immigrant policy down to the need for votes. “Whenever it comes to elections, politicians want to portray refugees and migrants as the problem, so that they can bring the tension up and so people can fight among themselves,” he said.
“Most migrants come for investment in South Africa. And refugees, they are not here because they are happy. All Congolese who are here, we are just refugees … The DA is speaking rubbish about migrants. We should denounce this, name it and shame it in public.”
Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa spokesperson Abigail Dawson said a legitimate party manifesto cannot be based on the exclusion and scapegoating of a group of people. “Migration and a failing immigration system is not the primary issue in South Africa. The DA’s manifesto is cheap politics, using vulnerable, poor, black people from the African continent to earn votes.
“The DA is attempting to conceal a xenophobic rhetoric in the guise of regulation and order. The notion of ‘securing’ borders reeks of exclusionary, nationalist politics based on the criminalisation of other African brothers and sisters,” she said.