South Africa is a country of immigrants. 2000 years ago, when Romans were conquering Europe, Chinese invented paper making, and Jesus was born in the Middle-East, only the San lived in South Africa. Visit Aliwal North, or Lesotho, or Fish Hoek, or Kwazulu-Natal, and you will find evidence of their existence. Around 300 CE, groups of blacks crossed the Limpopo, settling within the boundaries of modern-day South Africa. Roughly three hundred years later, these groups reached the Eastern Cape. This slow process of gradual migration – known as one of the largest migrations in world history – created the cultural differentiation within black society that we still observe today: the clicks of the Xhosa, for example, is the result of assimilating the Khoesan language. The reason they supplanted the ‘indigenous’ San was iron-working and crop cultivation: two key ingredients to support larger populations. Recent evidence shows that another group – the Khoe – moved into South Africa roughly between 900 and 1300 CE. A pastoral people, they came from Botswana, crossed the Gariep, and settled in the Western and Eastern Cape. (They were roughly 10 cm taller than the San, who still relied mostly on hunting and gathering, although with the arrival of the Khoe, the San often lived in a servant-relationship with the Khoe.)
It was the Khoe the Portuguese first met on their visit to Africa’s southernmost trip in the fifteenth century. And it was the Khoe who lost their land when the Dutch settled the Cape in the seventeenth century. And after 1652, that dreaded date in South African history, came more Europeans: Germans, English, French, Scandinavians. And with the Europeans came slaves from the East: mostly from modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Mozambique, but also China, Iran, and the coast of West Africa (even as far as the Canary Islands).
During the nineteenth century came more Europeans, British mostly, moving to sunny South Africa to escape the working-class squalor of the early Industrial Revolution. And when diamonds and gold was discovered, more came, this time from all across Europe, and America, and Australia. But the diamond mines required labour, and so millions of Africans came from across southern Africa: Tswanas from Botswana, Shonas and Ndebele from Zimbabwe, Makua and Tsonga from Mozambique, Chewa and Lomwe from Malawi. At the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 60 000 Chinese were brought to work on the mines, although the experiment proved disastrous and most were sent back. In Kwazulu-Natal, however, the settlement of more than 150 000 Indians on sugar plantations proved more enduring.
Immigration never stopped, not even during apartheid, comprising many nationalities, religions and ethnicities: Jewish, Portuguese, Greek, to name a few. The world wars brought thousands of Western and Eastern Europeans to South Africa. And mines continued to bring foreign workers to the country, in their tens-of-thousands. And it continued after 1994: Between 1995 and 2010, more than a million Basotho (from Lesotho) and Swazi (from Swaziland) traveled to South Africa every year. The New South Africa brought Chinese and Pakistani and Cuban and Bangladeshi and Nigerian and Somali and Congolese and Vietnamese and Senegalese immigrants to our shores. Many of the Italian and German and Irish and American tourists who fall in love with the country and its people, stay behind. More than a million Zimbabweans now call South Africa home.
South Africa is a country of immigrants. And yet, we treat our new arrivals like shit. This week, xenophobic attacks in Soweto relived the awful attacks of 2008. Poor communities are disgruntled because immigrants ‘steal the jobs of locals’. And while the attacks on foreigners are limited to townships, the vitriolic sentiment is pervasive, even into upper middle-class households. “Send them back to their own countries” is the standard response on news sites.
It is certainly sad that many of the foreigners’ origin countries are struggling economically, notably Zimbabwe. But South Africa should be thankful to these immigrants, welcoming them, offering them work visas (and, after a few years, citizenship) and allowing them to build our economy. They are not a drain on our resources, but a boon. The literature on the economics of immigration suggest that immigrants stimulate the domestic economy, creating jobs (and not stealing them). That is because immigrants are often better-educated, more resourceful and more driven; they have to make a success because their support structures (family and ethnic networks) are limited. Especially in South Africa where skills are in short supply, foreign skills are critical if our economy is to thrive.
South Africa, the rainbow nation, should be the one place where we celebrate diversity, where we live Thabo Mbeki’s vision of the African Renaissance. It is deeply ironic that we consider our African neighbours ‘foreigners’ only because they live in countries created by European colonial officials randomly drawing lines on a map.
Instead, we despise these ‘foreigners’. We attack them. We loot their shops. We don’t give them work visas, which means they can’t find work as nurses, or electricians, or university professors. They find it difficult to open a bank account, register a car, or buy a house. In short, we make their lives a living hell. (Read Jonny Steinberg’s latest novel – A Man of Good Hope – to get a sense of the hope and determination of these immigrants, but also of the sad reality of their unwelcoming arrival here. The Economist reviews the book here.)
I am sure we can all do better. For the future of South Africa, we need to do better. That a country which has survived apartheid can be so hostile to outsiders is perhaps the greatest indictment against our generation. Especially considering that we are all, essentially, immigrants.