Frontline Africa Advisory

Government’s populist policy to regulate migrant workers in South Africa

Government’s populist policy to regulate migrant workers in South Africa

On 5 March 2021, Minister of Employment and Labour Mr Thulas Nxesi announced that his Department would introduce a new labour migration policy that regulates foreign workers in South Africa. Nxesi explained that the policy would be submitted to Cabinet for approval and that an official pronouncement would follow. According to the Minister, the policy is intended to regulate the employment of low-skilled foreign workers in the hospitality, security, farming, and the agriculture sectors.

The announcement by Nxesi follows President Cyril Ramaphosa’s appearance in Parliament in August 2020, when he said “We [Government] need to respond to the frustration of our own people at the violation of immigration laws and other regulations by those companies that employ foreign nationals illegally”.

Government has long been under pressure to address the issue of immigration and labour laws. Its perceived lack of decisive action has often resulted in foreign nationals, especially those from African countries, being attacked in townships for allegedly stealing South Africans’ jobs.

On 25 February 2021, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) reported that more people were moving to South Africa for work opportunities. The report further stated that one in three immigrants moved to South Africa to look for work. A great number of these immigrants are uneducated and thus compete in the already saturated unskilled employment sector.

With the South African economy continuously shedding jobs and facing high levels of unemployment across skills levels, an increase in the number of foreign nationals coming to the country is likely to fuel tensions.

The Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) published in late February revealed that South Africa’s unemployment rate now sits at 32.5%, an increase from 2020’s figure of 28.1%. The majority of job losses appear to have disproportionately affected unskilled workers in insecure employment. The second set of findings by the National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram) published in September 2020 concluded that unskilled workers, along with women and workers living in rural areas, experienced the largest declines in employment during the lockdown.  

Scapegoating and Electioneering: A Toxic Mix

Foreign nationals have unfairly borne the brunt of South Africans’ frustration with increasing levels of unemployment, poverty and crime in the country. They have become a soft target for South Africans’ need to show dissatisfaction at the government’s inability to provide basic services.

While the causes of the recent unemployment increase can be traced to the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, it is beyond that the South African economy has, for a long time, experienced slow and steady decline. Even at the height of economic growth in 2007/08, the economy still struggled to create jobs, leading many to talk about a jobless growth.

Since coming to office, President Ramaphosa has spoken at length about the required reforms to place the economy on a growing trajectory. His Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, has been singing from the same hymn book, with extraordinarily little practical effect being given to the identified reforms. Very little empirical evidence has been produced showing that foreign nationals are taking up jobs that would otherwise be taken by South Africans. Anecdotally, a case can of course be made for this, especially in the restaurant sector, mainly in major metropolitan areas such as Cape Town and Johannesburg.

This begs the question; why the sudden need by Nxesi to legislate employment of foreign nationals? On the one hand, it can be admitted that the problem of unregulated migrants in the country had to be addressed at some point. On the other, it does seem that politics is at play. With South Africans will be going to the local government elections before the end of the year, there has been a dismal record of delivery in many municipalities across the country. Over the last ten years, performance by municipalities steadily decreased, despite many interventions by Treasury and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. Financial management has deteriorated to a point where the late Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu used every opportunity and platform to call for stronger consequences for government officials found to be less than studious in managing government resources.  

No doubt, the suggestion that Nxesi is simply opening a populist avenue for the ANC government to exploit and deflect attention from its own failings does carry water. Along with Gauteng’s Township Economy Bill, the proposed policy intervention by the Department of Employment and Labour will shift the blame for South Africa’s unemployment malaise to vulnerable foreigners.  With it, comes an increasingly fatalistic view held by many, including high-profile leaders, which fuels xenophobic (or Afrophobic) tendencies that all African migrants are not welcome in South Africa.

There is a need for broader solutions.

The policy’s assumption that undocumented foreign workers are core drivers of unemployment in South Africa is erroneous. Instead, the Government’s failure to implement a coherent immigration system, grow the economy, accompanied by low levels of education are core drivers of unemployment. Until Government initiates a comprehensive policy to address those issues, South Africa’s unemployment situation will continue to deteriorate.

The country’s porous borders are also a problem that owes to systemic corruption and inefficiencies at the ports of entry. The question that leadership should be asking itself is, given the global nature of the phenomenon of migration, what is it that South Africa can learn from other countries, including on the African continent, that seem to be managing migration better.

Written by Siseko Maposa

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