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Migration watch: South Africa

Posted on Monday, 21 September 2009 00:00

Visitors from north of the Limpopo find a contradictory welcome

Since 1994, South Africa has witnessed huge immigration from other African countries. Over 1m white people have left South Africa since the advent of democracy, but at least 3.5m – and probably many more – African migrants have flocked into the country.

The largest group has been Zimbabwean, fleeing increasingly impossible circumstances back home. Zimbabweans can be found in almost every sphere of South African life, and at the lower end of the economic scale have acquired a reputation among many South Africans for undercutting minimum wage rates, particularly as farm labourers and in the private security industry.??

People from all over Africa have gathered in Johannesburg and the other major cities. It seems the largest African expatriate communities are Mozambican, Congolese, Nigerian, Senegalese and Somali. African foreign nationals are in niche enterprises: West Africans in tailoring; the Congolese in Johannesburg and Cape Town’s informal car-guarding sector; Somalis run spazas (small general stores) in informal settlements nationwide.

To the fury of local shop-owners, township customers appreciate the competitive pricing of the Somali shops. Ethnic solidarity often allows immigrant groups to band together to raise capital for a foothold in a sector, while local residents’ resources are more limited.

During the brutal xenophobic attacks of April last year, which targeted nationals from other African countries living in townships and informal settlements, many Somali shops were looted and burnt. Some merchants have now returned, though some business associations have imposed illegal conditions, including forcing them to raise prices.

No-one has been successfully prosecuted for participating in those attacks. African migrants have generally not fought back, but cannot be relied upon to do so forever. If Europe’s experience is anything to go by, South Africans may be in for a shock when the migrants’ children adopt a more assertive anti-xenophobic stance.