Monday, May 7, 2012

Ethiopian Business Owners in South Africa fear for their life, "We are not black enough to operate in South Africa"

Hundeyo Abebe Erebalo stands outside his store in Freedom Park. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng.

It is inevitable that a government in power and the civilian populace can disagree and sometimes fight when things are not working properly.

But should the service delivery demonstrations or other disturbances all follow the all too familiar route of killing the foreign trader and looting his goods?

It is not as if the ANC is out of touch with the predicament of the foreigners. The issue is on the agenda for the ruling party and has been discussed by the party branches, and migrant communities alike. It is only the wording in the ANC discussion document on the road to Mangaung that worries.

Newspapers reported that the ANC was proposing a crackdown on foreign-owned spaza shops in response to anger among local small businesses over perceived unwelcome competition.

The party is proposing that non-South Africans should not run spaza shops without adhering to “certain legislated prescripts” which by themselves are no different from those applying to South Africans running spaza shops.

But the question in the ANC document that has got analysts and foreigners themselves worried is: “Should by-laws apply equally to both foreigners and (bona fide) citizens?” The ANC argues that the renting of houses by foreigners, and more specifically asylum seekers, from South Africans who rent out their RDP houses, is in contravention of municipal by-laws.

The party thinks that: “…ideally municipalities should know who lives and works and runs businesses in their area as well as their status”.

But then, is it a question of local municipalities managing tensions between business people, or is the specific question who is running what business to be classified as a business threat?

The ANC discussion document argues that because many asylum seekers have taken advantage of the non-encampment policy – asylum seekers are not housed in camps – it is now time for a risk-based approach and to take “robust steps” against those who end up in South Africa after having crossed through other safe countries, where they could have remained – in effect if they so wanted to, open spaza shops, why don’t they do it elsewhere?

In other words, ANC thinkers are saying how did an asylum seeker from Ethiopia – like Erebalo – arrive here in the first place, and were there no safer countries between South Africa and Ethiopia?

“Those asylum seekers who present a high risk must be accommodated (read detained) in a secure facility, until their status has been determined.

“The low risk asylum seekers will be processed while they are assisted by various organizations.”

Migration in South Africa is, however, not the sole responsibility of the state. It requires a broad societal response.

Civil society needs to step up to the plate. A specific role exists for churches and religious groups, NGOs, justice departments and academia to help in the humanitarian crises that arises from time to time among the migrant communities.

A fundamental challenge to South Africans, however, is how the wider society lives up to the Bill of Rights and the constitution in the treatment and handling of migrants, and how they deal with immigration.

An important tenet of a democratic society is the equal treatment of foreigners within its borders.

Otherwise democracy itself will be under threat if the ruling party appears to blame the migrants for doing business in South African townships.

How can one have a set of rules for some people, and a completely different set of others for another?

No wonder angry South Africans can get away with killing foreigners and looting their shops, as the man in the accompanying picture from Ratanda is getting away with his loot. Ever heard of someone who went to jail for that?

It is a test that South Africa is failing dismally, given that some ANC leaders and councilors have been known to fuel xenophobic tendencies by blaming foreigners for the problems being experienced in the townships.

The rights of migrants, as enshrined in the constitution, appear to have been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

As has been shown in previous editions of The Migrant newspaper, migration, if properly managed, can be a boon for South Africa and further enrich this already cosmopolitan rainbow nation. Time will tell.