ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba’s grossly misdirected attack on Jonathan Jansen earlier this month (“Foreign nationals: The new F-word that needs proper discourse,” 10 April) over the respected educationist’s repeated warnings against fanning the flames of xenophobia succeeds chiefly in exposing the damning cynicism of Mashaba’s own obsession with ‘foreigners’.

Tragically, just as Jansen warned that it might, the ‘debate’ Mashaba has been so energetic in stimulating – about immigration, and particularly about ‘undocumented immigrants’ and ‘foreign nationals’ being involved in crime – once more meshes with profoundly shaming imagery of savage injustice.

It was the death of Elvis Nyathi that triggered an unforgiving tweet from Jansen.

The 43-year-old Zimbabwean father of four was beaten, stoned and set on fire on 6 April by a Diepsloot mob evidently fired up by what one report described as “negligent policing of immigration laws”.

Jansen wrote: “I warned you Herman Mashaba. By fanning the flames of anti-immigrant hatred, you helped create the environment that led to the burning to ashes of the Zimbabwean Elvis Nyathi. Four terrified children without a father. Don’t you dare condemn the attack”.

The first three words of the tweet refer to a Twitter exchange between the two men in January, after Mashaba had told his followers about “the employment of foreign nationals in senior positions in the department of basic education”.

He promised that he would “take up this matter with the minister and the SA Democratic Teachers Union if they have knowledge of this when South Africans are unemployed”.

Jansen responded: “You are a disgraceful leader Mr Mashaba! Stop your campaign of xenophobia. You remind me of Idi’s crusade against the Indians in Uganda. You are hateful and spiteful and an embarrassment to the country and the continent.”

If Jansen’s sentiments unarguably chime with all the core values of the post-1994 constitutional era, the palpable anxiety in his warnings is surely justified by the threats to democratic constitutionalism posed by the continued peddling of ethnic, racialist or nationalist thinking in the years since the transition.

Xenophobic hostility

We do not, for instance, need to speculate about the existence of xenophobic hostility in South Africa, given the record of incidents and outbreaks over the past two decades, or to wonder uncertainly about how important it is to challenge racialist, ethnic or xenophobic reasoning. The murder of Elvis Nyathi is inseparable from, and could be argued to be a manifestation of, such reasoning.

But what if someone convinces us that it is no such thing, and that it is permissible to harbour resentment or hostility towards certain categories of people on the grounds that, merely for being who they are, they and not their attackers are a threat to lawfulness and the democratic order.

In January, after Jansen’s ‘“You are a disgraceful leader’ charge, Mashaba responded: “It is truly sad to have someone like you promoting lawlessness in a democratic environment. It is a disgrace to have an academic person taking such a stance. Why would ordinary South Africans respect our laws when their teachers are selective in the application of its laws?”

He implies, here, that the crime – the “lawlessness” – is the act of employing foreigners. The ActionSA leader was not, after all, talking about actual or convicted criminals, but – in his words – “the employment of foreign nationals in senior positions in the department of basic education”.

Three months later, after Jansen’s reaction to Elvis Nyathi’s murder, Mashaba rewards the scholar’s grim percipience with the accusation that he is an ‘anarchist’. This is a risible claim but it’s one that now serves to reinforce the ActionSA leader’s contriving a direct link between foreignness and criminality.

By a feat of breathtaking legerdemain over just five paragraphs, Mashaba goes from stating the wholly uncontroversial position that “South African law is clear that we have borders and the right to determine the access to our country of people and goods passing through our borders”, to arguing that “at the heart of the frustrations of many South Africans on this issue [immigration] is the absolute and unmitigated failure of the national government to manage our borders and address criminal actions perpetrated by undocumented foreign nationals”.

Murky ethno-nationalist seam

Undoubtedly, no small number of South Africans buy into a foreign-nationals-do-crime narrative. And Mashaba plays on it, though insists he is not out to mine this murky ethno-nationalist seam for his own ends, or to inflame its devotees.

His real objective, he suggests, is altogether nobler, and it’s his critics who are letting the country down: “I find the finger-pointing unproductive in the extreme,” he writes, “because it is letting the actual culprit of the current situation – the ANC government – off the hook.”

But what is made to seem nothing more than credible and responsible opposition politicking is indistinguishable from the core theme; his warning of “criminal actions perpetrated by undocumented foreign nationals”.

No sensible person has any difficulty acknowledging that some foreigners are criminals – but there are some crisp observations to be made about foreign nationals and crime.

Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies notes that between 7% and 10% of South Africa’s prisoner population are foreign nationals, which is “probably in line with the proportion of foreign nationals in the country”.

However, he adds, it is important to note that the numbers of foreign nationals in prison “is not a reflection of the extent to which they are involved in crime”, and for two key reasons.

The first is that foreign nationals are particularly targeted by the police so that those involved in crime are more likely than South Africans to be detected and arrested. At the same time, a vast majority of criminals are not detected by the police, with SAPS currently only being able to solve about 15% of murders. 

The second is that foreign nationals are less likely to be given parole or released from prison than South Africans.


“Simply put, foreign nationals are overrepresented in South African prisons, so their proportion does not reflect that they are more involved in crime than locals.”

Newham points out that a vast majority of foreign nationals in South Africa are not involved in crime and those who are, typically work with locals.

“Even if we removed every foreign national from the country, it is unlikely to make a substantial difference to our crime rate,” he says. 

“Targeting foreign nationals will have no benefit for solving any of our country’s problems,” Newham concludes, “but instead will divide and weaken our nation further while powerful criminals and corrupt politicians looking to distract attention from their failures will grow stronger.”

And, of course, what is overlooked is that there is after all a very powerful alternative to the deeply flawed if tragically persuasive association of crime and foreignness; it is the altogether more obvious association of foreignness and enterprise.

This association is examined in depth in the 2017 report, South Africa’s immigrants – Building a new economy, commissioned by the Institute of Race Relations. If, as author of the report Rian Malan emphasises, immigrants in South Africa are not universally enterprising or successful, they do nevertheless represent “a significant subset” of South African entrepreneurship.

Immigrant enterprise and success was singled out in 2014 by Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu when she remarked candidly: “Black people were never part of the economy of South Africa in terms of owning anything, and therefore when they see other people coming from outside being successful they feel like the space is being closed by foreigners. It’s important for the foreigners to share with the South Africans what it is that makes it possible for them to be successful.”

Her comment was controversial at the time, but Malan thought “she was posing an entirely legitimate question”, and sought in his report to find the answer.

One might have thought that business-minded Mashaba would be more willing to see it as Malan does, or as Lindiwe Zulu sensed it to be.

‘Significant subset’

Scanning the entrepreneurial landscape – the “spazas run by Ethiopians or Somalis and cellphone shops run by Pakistanis”; the Kasikos, taxi and tavern sectors “dominated” by South Africans, who “are holding their own in the hairstyling business in the face of stiff competition from Cameroonians and Nigerians”, the Mozambicans who “dominate the tricky fresh fruit and vegetable sector” – Malan writes: “All these business are black-owned. None were created by government, and none derive benefits from affirmative action laws or government preferential procurement schemes. They evolved naturally. Humans saw opportunities and pursued them. A significant subset of these entrepreneurs are black migrants from elsewhere in Africa, and their success comes in spite of rampant xenophobia, constant police harassment and repeated government attempts to reduce their numbers” via legislation seeking to place bureaucratic obstacles in their way.

South Africa’s immigrants – Building a new economy concludes:Under these circumstances, it’s surprising that foreign traders have survived at all, let alone prospered to an extent where they can challenge ‘white’ domination in certain arenas. Their success is testimony to a rare triumph of the human spirit, and the endurance of allegedly outmoded values like hard work and perseverance. As Lindiwe Zulu intuited, they have something important to tell us. It is not too late to listen.”

Against all this – and the willingness of attention-seeking politicians to exploit latent or manifest xenophobic impulses in communities made desperate by poverty, joblessness, and dysfunctional government administration in key areas such as policing – it is salutary but discomforting to encounter Malan’s footnote of five years ago: “For the record, none of the foreigners interviewed for this report viewed white racism as an obstacle to advancement. They were universally far more concerned about hostility from black politicians, black business rivals and black xenophobes.”

That the risks remain as fresh today is proof that Jonathan Jansen deserves credit for his vigilance and his courage in speaking up.

* This article was offered to City Press in the week after Herman Mashaba’s opinion piece was published on 10 April.

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IRR head of media Michael Morris was a newspaper journalist from 1979 to 2017, covering, among other things, the international campaign against apartheid, from London, and, as a political correspondent in Cape Town, South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has written three books, the last being Apartheid, An Illustrated History, and has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. He writes a fortnightly column in Business Day.