| Mashaba: Timid government is failing to deal with undocumented immigrants

In refusing to take charge of the contentious issue of undocumented immigrants and act on legitimate concerns, government is failing to fulfil its constitutional mandate 

I am a pragmatist, a realist, a straight talker who places a high premium on speaking the unvarnished truth.

This often forces me to confront uncomfortable topics while most choose to remain silent, but I refuse to be the ostrich with its head in the sand.

Before I decided to enter politics, I found myself frequently frustrated at the manner with which politicians spoke with a forked tongue on crucial matters that affect the wellbeing of our country, most importantly its people.

Often I witnessed these seasoned politicians simply backing away from speaking the truth for fear of being misinterpreted, misunderstood or, in most cases, labelled something sinister.

However, the result of this self-imposed silence, especially among politicians, is a country paralysed by inaction even against those issues that threaten its stability, progress and wellbeing.

A case in point is the timidity of those in power, particularly national government, when confronted with the issue of undocumented immigration in South Africa.

This is hardly an issue to trip over, considering that the law is quite clear in this regard.

South Africa is rightfully a signatory to international agreements that recognise and protect the rights of refugees and immigrants.

However, upholding these rights does not require us to turn our backs on our own sovereignty as a democratic state.

Our Constitution is founded on values that include the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law.

We also have the Immigration Act, which sets out clear legal requirements for those entering our country.

Countries all over Africa and the world insist on the right to protect their ports of entry and process those entering their soil.

They also have the right to deny you entry or deport you should you be there unlawfully, rights which are staunchly protected.

Strangely, South Africa is expected to be the exception.

Many have accused me of being xenophobic, but to demand that our Constitution be respected cannot be xenophobic.

To demand that the department of home affairs fulfil its constitutional mandate and ensure that undocumented persons be properly processed cannot be said to be xenophobic.

When national government fails to fulfil its responsibilities, the effects are felt by all – South Africans and immigrants alike. My administration grapples with this on a daily basis.

Within the context of the City of Johannesburg, undocumented immigration compounds serious challenges in the provision of basic services and accommodation to residents.

As a city, we are expected to plan and budget for the provision of basic services to all our residents.

How are we supposed to effectively and accurately plan and budget when we do not know who is even in our city?

The City of Johannesburg’s health department is struggling to cope with an increasing number of undocumented patients who visit its public health facilities.

Data extracted from the electronic health system shows that the number of undocumented patients increased from 32 092 to 82 923 between 2016 and last year.

The Constitution guarantees healthcare to all, however we have limited resources and our systems are under severe strain.

Our resources are ill-equipped to address the growing number of undocumented persons seeking assistance.

This is of particular concern for Johannesburg, which is a hub for both cross-border and domestic migration.

In its 130-year history, Johannesburg has been built by migrants from across our country and the world.

This is a tradition I wish to see continued.


Foreign nationals protesting outside the Johannesburg Magistrates’ Court after fellow migrants were arrested due to lack of documentation. The author says implementation of tighter migration laws cannot be equated to xenophobia. Picture: Sandile Ndlovu

Foreign nationals buy goods in our country, establish businesses and stimulate economic growth.

They also contribute their skills and experience in sectors of our economy where they are desperately needed.

This is key to my vision of creating a more prosperous and inclusive city.

However, it remains my duty to raise concerns that have a direct bearing on service delivery.

Since coming into office, I have engaged every minister of home affairs on this issue with no success – that is five ministers in the space of three years.

Sadly, we have become all too accustomed to serious challenges spiraling out of control owing to a lack of political will to address them.

Home affairs has absolutely failed to produce a satisfactory and comprehensive immigration plan, let alone implement one.

Furthermore, allegations of corruption and bribery in the provision of papers is aggravating this crisis.

Many people, out of desperation borne out of political, social and economic instability in their countries, seek a better life in South Africa, in Johannesburg in particular.

As undocumented immigrants, many of the people who make it past our borders are forced to live on the fringes of society, in the shadows and with limited protection.

It is essential that national government cleans up its act and ensures that:

  • There is identification and processing of undocumented immigrants; and
  • In appropriate circumstances, legal documentation be expeditiously provided to those who qualify.

This will protect those who wish to legitimately enter our country from criminal elements, including slum lords and drug traffickers who abuse their desperation and are able to evade the law.

Any suggestion that my call for the restoration of the rule of law is tantamount to inciting violence is absurd and cheap politicking.

The reality of what happened across Johannesburg and other areas that experienced sporadic violence last week is that a group of criminals pounced on the opportunity to abuse a legitimate concern to violently loot and destroy largely foreign-owned businesses.

However, it is important to state that many South Africans have been affected equally by this disgraceful criminality.

As I witnessed the shameful scenes of violence and criminality that played out this past week, and the reaction from some foreign leaders whose people are said to be the main targets thereof, I could not help but marvel at their hypocrisy.

Perhaps the time has come for the South African government to be bold enough to engage the leaders of each of the nations whose people are here, and ask them what they are doing to improve conditions in their countries so that their citizens no longer see it necessary to enter other countries illegally.

We must also demand to know what they plan to do to prevent their citizen from becoming undocumented immigrants and risking their lives to enter other countries, where they become exposed to exploitation.

No leader should be allowed to wash their hands of a crisis that is of their making.

Once again, I wish to reiterate the point that demanding adherence to the rule of law cannot, and must not, be misconstrued as a call to violence, as some misguided commentators sought to do this past week.

We cannot remain silent in the face of the breakdown of the rule of law in our country, or to the rising human crisis.

Ultimately, the casualties of government’s inaction will be our poorest residents and indeed law-abiding foreign nationals.

If we are to turn around the City of Johannesburg and ensure that we reach our true potential, it is vital that the rule of law is respected.

No country can hope to have a stable democracy, economic growth, development and safe communities if the rule of law is not upheld.

Mashaba is the executive mayor of the City of Johannesburg

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