South Africa/Zimbabwe: Migrants become political pawns as relationship sours

By Farai Shawn Matiashe

Posted on Friday, 4 February 2022 11:55
Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa arrive for bilateral talks in Harare
Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa arrive for bilateral talks in Harare, Zimbabwe March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

The relationship between Pretoria and Harare, which has been cordial for decades, is deteriorating. Migration, as ever, is high on the list of grievances.

South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) government, which has over the years used ‘quiet diplomacy’ policy with its revolutionary counterpart, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), is not happy with the prolonged economic and political crisis in the neighbouring country to the north. The latest point of contention has been over both documented and undocumented migrants in South Africa.

As South Africa, one of the biggest economies on the continent, grapples with high unemployment, locals have been blaming migrants – particularly Zimbabweans – for grabbing job opportunities.

The unemployment rate in South Africa rose to 34.9% in the third quarter of 2021, up from 34.4% in the second quarter, according to Statistics South Africa data released in November last year.

The unemployment rate was the highest since 2008, when the Quarterly Labour Force Survey was launched.

Migrants as a campaign issue

The migrants’ matter became an election issue in the local elections that were held in November 2021. Compared to the 2016 local elections, the ANC received 46.03%, a decline of nearly 8%, according to the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, a German political foundation that conducts political education.

The results show that the ANC is losing popularity, and the 2024 national elections are going to be tough.

Some small political parties including ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance recorded strong performances in the local polls, and some analysts attributed this to their anti-migrant campaigns.

Xenophobic attacks

In early January this year, xenophobic attacks erupted, targeting Zimbabweans in rented houses and those working in informal trading in Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic hub.

This is not the first time that Zimbabweans have been targeted by South African nationals. In 2015, the government repatriated thousands of citizens as a result of xenophobic attacks.

ANC government policy

The ANC government says it is getting tougher on Zimbabweans without documents in South Africa. In December, the government gave just one year to stay for about 180,000 Zimbabweans who hold the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP), which expired at the end of December 2021.

ZEP is a visa that excludes its holders from the requirements of South Africa’s immigration procedures and allows them to work freely in the country.

Those who do not regularise their stay in South Africa by end of December 2022 will face deportation.

The number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa is not known, but estimates suggest that they are more than two million people.

And Mr. Malema…

Julius Malema, the president of the leftist opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters – who supported Mugabe because of his controversial land reform programme and black empowerment initiatives – has since changed his stance towards Zimbabwe.

In 2020, Malema took aim at Mnangagwa’s authoritarian rule.

Malema criticises South Africa’s xenophobic attacks, saying that black South Africans should fight capitalism and not their fellow Africans.

After the November 2021 local elections, Malema embarked on a tour of restaurants in January to check if employers are adhering to the policy of having a 50/50 ratio of South African and foreign workers.

Border troubles

In January this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration launched an operation to arrest undocumented Zimbabweans who were crossing through the river and forest near the Beitbridge border post.

During a tour of the Beitbridge border post by South Africa’s home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi, it was revealed that Zimbabwean law enforcement agents were taking bribes to allow immigrants into South Africa.

Motsoaledi accused President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government of dragging its feet in addressing migration issues.

About 80,000 Zimbabweans were arrested between January and December 2021 when trying to enter South Africa without legal documents and were then deported to Zimbabwe.

The reaction from Harare

The Zimbabwean government is on the defensive, with police spokesperson Paul Nyathi saying that law enforcement agents are arresting those who are trying to enter South Africa illegally.

Besides human trafficking at the Beitbridge border post, goods worth millions of dollars such as groceries and electrical gadgets are smuggled from South Africa into Zimbabwe through the more than 200 illegal crossing points along the Limpopo River.

The end of the Christmas and New Year festive season is usually characterised by a surge in the number of Zimbabweans entering South Africa without legal documents to seek greener pastures.

Many of the Zimbabweans in South Africa left during the political and economic crises of the 2000s under the leadership of the long-time ruler Robert Mugabe. Many hopes for a better Zimbabwe under Mnangagwa, who came to power through a military coup in 2017, have faded away.

The Southern African country is still suffering from economic mismanagement, corruption, uncontrolled inflation, stagnant salaries, widespread poverty and gross human rights violations.

The consequences of ‘quiet diplomacy’

During the tenure of then president Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), the ANC adopted a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’. Its goal was to not intervene harshly in the affairs of a sovereign country.

South Africa has been treating ZANU-PF with kid gloves. As revolutionary parties, the ANC has been pampering ZANU-PF, especially from the era of former president Mbeki up to now.

Other governments in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) adopted this policy.

In 2008, Mbeki brokered a power-sharing deal between opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Mugabe. The government of national unity was in place from 2009 to 2013. This was despite the fact that Tsvangirai had won a landslide victory against Mugabe in the general polls that year.

Daglous Makumbe, a lecturer in the department of political studies at the University of the Western Cape, says South Africa has its share of the blame for the ongoing economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe.

“South Africa has been treating ZANU-PF with kid gloves. As revolutionary parties, the ANC has been pampering ZANU-PF, especially from the era of former president Mbeki up to now,” he says.

Makumbe continues: “South Africa contributed to this political and economic malaise through sending Mbeki to force an inclusive government when ZANU-PF had been vanquished in the 2008 elections. South Africa should have forced Mugabe to relinquish power after that defeat, instead of forcing an inclusive government.”

“If South Africa had forced Mugabe to relinquish power after the 2008 political defeat, Zimbabwe was going to experience a democratic transitions like the Zambian one, and it was never going to be in this current sorry state. The influx of undocumented and desperate Zimbabweans into South Africa show that the latter is now swallowing its own medicine,” he adds.

Joseph Jakarasi, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Free State, says the ANC has been too soft on ZANU-PF for a long time.

“One would expect South Africa, considering their economic status in Africa, to be vocal and try to resolve Zimbabwe’s prolonged economic crisis. But they rather took a ‘quiet diplomacy’ policy – probably because of Mugabe, who was feared by many in SADC. It was difficult for his peers to challenge him,” he tells The Africa Report.

The tension between Harare and Pretoria is growing

In 2020, there was a global outcry, particularly on social media, over Mnangagwa’s crackdown of human rights activists and political leaders under the guise of enforcing Covid-19 regulations.

Harare should never try to force Pretoria to reverse its policies, especially on the ZEP, which expired on 31 December last year…

The ANC, led by secretary-general Ace Magashule, met with ZANU-PF leaders. The government in Harare stopped him from meeting the opposition.

Patrick Chinamasa, a ZANU-PF spokesperson at the time and a former finance minister, chided the ANC from monitoring the ruling party’s methods of governing.

Makumbe says the relationship between ZANU-PF and the ANC is not yet hopelessly frosty but will deteriorate further if Harare tries to force Pretoria’s hand.

“Harare should never try to force Pretoria to reverse its policies, especially on the ZEP, which expired on 31 December last year […]. Harare should cajole and plead with Pretoria, rather than try to lampoon it. Harare should know that it has everything to lose, and Pretoria has everything to gain,” he says.

What will change?

For years, the ZANU-PF government has been blaming sanctions by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union for its failure to turn around the economy.

South Africa and other SADC countries have joined Zimbabwe in its repeated calls for the removal of sanctions. But Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed due to a combination of factors which include massive corruption, mismanagement and human rights violations.

The University of the Free State’s Jakarasi says it is high time the ANC do away with its ‘quiet diplomacy’ policy and adopt a more radical policy towards ZANU-PF.

“Diplomacy is crucial for the ANC when dealing with ZANU-PF. The issue of electoral and political reforms and the respect of human rights should be at the centre. The ANC should push ZANU-PF to reform,” he says. “Once that is resolved, the economy will turn around. Zimbabweans in South Africa will come back home, and the ANC will be relieved of the pressure from other political parties because of migrants.”

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