The truth is that we have a serious problem with our immigration system
Last week, in response to a question on Twitter, I cited a figure of 15 million undocumented foreigners in South Africa as evidence of our porous borders.
It turns out that this figure was incorrect. I had come across the figure in an article in the Citizen, which had cited the World Bank as its source for the claim that there “are more than 15 million unregistered people” in South Africa. Unfortunately, the journalist had conflated unregistered people with stateless people, and I had interpreted this to mean undocumented immigrants. I took it at face value, but didn’t do so maliciously.
Part of the problem is a lack of reliable data about undocumented immigrants in South Africa. Estimates range from a few million based on the 2011 Census data, to as much as 15% of the population (approximately 9 million), according to Gary Eisenberg, an immigration attorney writing for Daily Maverick.
When questioned about my source, I defended my position. It is in my nature to come out swinging when I perceive something as an attack or an attempt to silence me on matters I feel passionately about – in this case, respect for the rule of law and the sovereignty of our state.
I argued that regardless of the number, the truth is that Home Affairs has failed to protect our borders and allowed our immigration system to collapse. This is not to say that facts or numbers don’t matter. Of course they do. In this instance, however, contesting the number belies the failure of our immigration system.
Just days after my Twitter debate, news broke that Shepherd Bushiri and his wife had skipped the country in defiance of their bail conditions (seemingly with assistance from the Malawian government, possibly even our own).
In response, Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, made the following statement to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee: “Chairperson, I must confess … it’s common cause … that we are suffering porous borders in this country.” This came along with the startling admission that the Bushiris each have five passports and their permanent residence permit was issued irregularly.
Furthermore, the Bushiris have entered and exited South Africa on numerous occasions despite their irregular permits, and were able to register companies despite never having applied for a business visa.
The Bushiris are not legitimate asylum seekers or refugees that have quietly crossed our borders out of desperation. They are high-profile con artists that stand accused of fraud to tune of over R100 million. Their ability to act with impunity for so long is an indictment on Home Affairs and our state.
Their case has enjoyed a great deal of media interest given their lavish lifestyles and powerful friends. During my time as the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg, however, our law enforcement operations revealed a much wider web of criminality being perpetrated by small-scale Bushiris that included human trafficking, drug dealing, prostitution, and trade in counterfeit goods. These crimes are enabled by an incompetent state, porous borders, and the erosion of law enforcement capabilities of SAPS. Too often, critics of my views on immigration seem silent on these issues of lawlessness, and the criminality experienced across South Africa.
This is not to suggest that all undocumented immigrants are criminals, or that crime is the sole reserve of foreign nationals. However, my experience as Mayor highlighted that this is very real concern in South Africa and one that has not received adequate attention from the state.
I have been insulted and called xenophobic many times for raising this (perhaps why I was so quick to defend myself when questioned about the legitimacy of my facts), so let me be clear: I have no problem with foreign nationals. South Africa was built by migrants and our rich cultural heritage speaks to this. As I have said many times, I want the people of the world to come to South Africa – but I want them to do so legally and obey our laws once here.
This is why ActionSA advocates for improved border security together with overdue reforms to our immigration system that will streamline the process for migrants to enter our country legally.
This is important, as the failures of Home Affairs don’t only impact negatively on South Africans, but on immigrants themselves. Legitimate asylum seekers and refugees are often exploited by corrupt officials and law enforcement officers, while skilled immigrants must navigate a costly and arduous process to enter South Africa legally. This must change.
ActionSA believes that we need to fix this by overhauling immigration regulations to streamline the process of legally migrating to South Africa; capacitate immigration institutions to swiftly deal with the backlog of asylum applications; relax the regulations for tourist visas and adopt an online visa-on-arrival system; and, importantly, reform Home Affairs by eradicating corruption, improving the performance of immigration officials and modernising immigration infrastructure.
I am unapologetic about my views on the failure of our immigration system in South Africa having seen first-hand how this state failure has impacted local communities. Last week my passion for this issue spilled over onto Twitter and my point got lost in translation. Some may write off my views as anecdotal, or worse, xenophobic. None the less, this week our Minister of Home Affairs was forced to admit that we have a serious immigration problem. On that, at least, I hope we can all agree.