Debating illegal immigration in South Africa is not xenophobic

By Herman Mashaba

A nasty trend has taken root in our country in which anyone who dares to speak out against certain issues is branded before being tarred and feathered.

I experienced this early in my Mayoralty when I went where angels feared to tread, illegal immigration.

For merely lamenting the state of illegal immigration I was labelled ‘xenophobic’, ‘afriphobic’ and ‘illiberal.’ As is so often the problem, and the intention, with this approach the merits of the argument go undebated.

After a week of abuse my message began to sink in. We want the people of the world to come to Johannesburg to work, live and enjoy our City. However there have to be two conditions. They must enter our country legally and, once here, they must obey our laws.

Something strange began to happen. Everywhere I went I was being stopped in the street by ordinary people who were so grateful that someone had said something about it.

It is amazing in a country with our history, that it took so long for someone to speak about an issue of such importance to our citizens. Why?

Speaking frankly, the state of illegal immigration in South Africa is a disaster.

For all intents and purposes we do not have borders in our country. People cross over into South Africa through a border that is, basically, not policed. Don’t take my word for it, the South African Defence Force have said as much themselves.

We do not know who is crossing into South Africa, what their purpose is for being here or whether they have criminal backgrounds in their own countries.

Let me be clear. Many of the people who come to our country without documentation are good people. They can contribute to our society but are often deprived this opportunity by a Home Affairs Department that is wholly inadequate in processing their documentation.

There is no civilised country in the world where this is the case, because for a country to succeed there must be a rule of law. Just like our government required my children to have a South African ID book when they turned 16, our government is supposed to regulate immigration and documentation for those who enter our country.

Our laws are very clear, but insist that they be implemented at your own peril. Even given the circumstances of our neighbours our laws make accommodation for asylum seekers, but this too requires documentation and the application of our laws.

Currently, arising from our disastrous state of affairs on the matter, there is a largely unknown number of people in our country without documentation. They have taken up residence, largely in our Cities. Yet there is no process for which I, the Mayor of Johannesburg, know the true numbers or receive any funding from National government for the services I am expected to render to them.

Who suffers the most from this state of affairs? The poor, forgotten people of our cities. They form the majority of the 9 million unemployed while limited work opportunities are taken up by unscrupulous employers taking on undocumented foreigners. Our poor forgotten people rely on government health facilities, policing and services which all become over-burdened due to their increased and unaccounted demands of undocumented people.

We have already seen how it impacts our over-burdened public healthcare system. We have already seen that our police are rendered ineffective when they arrest criminals who cannot be processed only to be released by a failing criminal justice system. Given that foreigners cannot qualify for state funded housing, many of them are subjected to the worst abuse from slum lords in our Inner City, contributing to our urban decay and degeneration.

The reality is that not all people coming into our country, are victims. Some are criminals coming to take advantage of our residents, with the intention of breaking our laws, knowing that our justice systems cannot deal with them.

Please consider how attractive the drug trade is in our country when traffickers know how porous our borders are, how our police are rendered ineffective by undocumented people and how over-burdened our criminal justice system is.

You would think, given these ramifications in the context of our country’s massive social backlogs, if would be important that we discuss the issue of illegal immigration. Right? Wrong.

For some reason whenever someone tries to speak about these issues, they are branded xenophobic, afrophobic or illiberal. There are forces in our country at work to ensure that anyone who dares to venture into this subject soon wishes they hadn’t.

Who are these people? What is their benefit from the current state of affairs? If you think there are not massive criminal syndicates at play, profiting from vulnerable, undocumented foreigners you are blind.

And yet, our commentariat plays into the hands of these profiteers. Their exhausting need for political correctness drives them to slam anyone who ventures into the terrain of illegal immigration. In a country with our challenges of crime and lawlessness, can you imagine attacking people who are calling for rule of law?

Sometimes one is forced to question whether these commentators have ever been into the Johannesburg inner city and seen with their own eyes the conditions and lawlessness. In their far-removed spaces I do not believe they witness the suffering of our citizens.

It is time that we recognise there is space for a responsible discussion on the subject of illegal immigration. Our citizens want it. Our police want it. Our nurses and doctors want it.

In a democracy, debating such matters and asking questions is critical. Shutting down this kind of discussion is undemocratic.

Surely with our hard won freedom to express or impart ideas, it would be irresponsible not to debate this issue and ask these questions without the political correctness police stepping in?

Herman Mashaba is Mayor of Johannesburg.

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