Recently William Saunderson-Meyer wrote that it was a self-serving myth that South Africa was a caring country. “Truth is we’ve probably always been mean and selfish, with racism fuelled antipathies blunting our humanity and such humaneness that we have retained is mostly hemmed in between ethnically defined borders.”
This can be clearly seen in our relationship to the ‘other’, the foreigner, the outsider.
Prof. Jonathan Crush, head of the SA Migration Programme, believes South Africans are the worst xenophobes on the planet, with a recent survey showing that 30% wanted a total prohibition on foreigners because “foreigners were stealing our jobs”.
This should resonate with the Jewish community not only out of our concern for social justice but also because for centuries we have been the victims of such xenophobia and, like the more recent refugees who have come here, our community also arrived fleeing economic problems, violence and political instability and faced prejudice and discrimination.
“You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he,” wrote former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Neither the arrival in the Cape of the East European Jews from the 1880s, nor the influx of people from the African continent since the fall of the apartheid regime, was welcomed by those already settled here. Like the Jews, African refugees are prepared to work hard to make better lives for their families and are unfairly blamed for taking away jobs from others.
Faced with these perceptions and with over nine million unemployed South Africans, the Government intends to crackdown on companies employing more than 40% foreign labour, fining businesses and jailing owners . (In 1939 MP Eric Louw wanted to limit the number of Jews who could own or work in any business.)
Finance Minister Gigaba justifies this by saying, “Xenophobic violence is what we want to prevent. The risk of not employing South Africans is that it endangers the lives of foreigners and the property of companies. If you look at the (xenophobic) violence that erupted in 2015, it started precisely because of a company in Durban that employed non-South Africans, and South Africans attacked the company.”
A March 2017 report of the Institute of Race Relations disproved this argument. There is more low-paid work in South Africa than meets the eye. Some of it is being taken up by foreigners who have no choice other than to open themselves to a degree of exploitation in the hope of improving their situation in the long run. Foreigners enjoy no discernible educational advantage, but have a radically different attitude toward work, invariably born of desperation.
Although a 2008 survey showed that 62% of our unemployed believed there were no jobs available, foreigners contend that there are many opportunities for those willing to start at the bottom or create work for themselves. Foreigners start new business, stimulate the local economy and create jobs. A century ago, Jews ran many of country trading stores — their place was taken by Portuguese and Greek immigrants. Today, Spaza shops are run by Ethiopians or Somalis, cellphone shops by Pakistanis, Mozambicans dominate the fresh fruit and vegetable sector while the taxi trade is under control of local blacks.
Job restrictions are not the only handicaps foreigners face. Bribes are often needed to get the all-important papers enabling them to stay here and get a SA ID without which they cannot marry or obtain unabridged birth certificates for their children, resulting in exclusion from schools.
Despite the Scalabrini Centre winning a court case against the Department of Home Affairs when it closed down the Cape Town office, it has not been reopened and only registers people who arrived before June 2014. All others must go to Johannesburg, Durban or Messina every few months together with their wives and families. As a result, there are almost one million unregistered foreigners here.
The Torah tells us “When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.” South African Jews, with their communal T-shirt saying, “Been there, done that”, should be at the forefront of supporting efforts to call on the government to respect the rights of refugees to work and provide a better future for their families.