Brian Latham looks at the very different attitudes to migration in Southern Africa compared to the UK

Undocumented migrants aren’t new, but the language surrounding them is – or has been since World War II. Hannah Arendt wrote eloquently about them after migrating away from Nazi persecution. What is also new, perhaps, is the stark contrast between migrants’ experiences in relatively poor countries and in rich nations like Britain, best summed up as angry rhetoric and rule of law versus benign neglect. 

Years ago, in blistering heat, I watched a huddle of illegal immigrants scuttle across a dry river bed in South Africa’s northern Limpopo Province. I’d joined a platoon of South African soldiers guarding the border. ‘’They’re just looking for a better life, perhaps just food or medicine,’’ the platoon’s lieutenant told me when I’d asked if he was going to turn them back. His men smiled while we shared a cigarette. ‘’You can’t blame them,’’ one said, ‘’They’re running from hell.’’

South Africa is one of the world’s most diverse nations, and arguably has more undocumented immigrants per capita than any other country outside the U.S. They come from as far as Asia and Eastern Europe, and certainly from each of Africa’s other 53 nations. It’s estimated that there are 3 million Zimbabweans living there. Some migrants walked huge distances from Somalia or Eritrea. 

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Zimbabwe is a useful example in the migration debate. While the bulk of its diaspora is in South Africa, there are 128,000 Zimbabweans in the UK, 65,000 in Australia, and over 20,000 in the United States. Smaller numbers inhabit the rest of the world, from Haiti to Helsinki. Most fled economic crises that have debilitated the country since 1997’s notorious ‘’Black Friday.’’ Others fled political persecution at the hands of the ruling Zanu-PF party. 

South Africa attracts the bulk of self-exiled Zimbabweans because the two countries share a small common border, but also because South Africa’s attitude to migrants in general, and Zimbabweans in particular, has been laissez-faire, and ultimately pragmatic. If there’s been occasional strong anti-migrant rhetoric from the ANC government, it hasn’t been matched by purges on the ground. 

It’s in stark contrast to the UK where the Guardian reports that, on top of dehumanizing language, the government is accused of ill-treating migrants on the English Channel, recently refusing to rescue a boat floating adrift without power, according to French authorities. 

That’s a puzzle because South Africa is nowhere near as rich as Britain. It has no real welfare system for refugees, and its population has a reputation for spontaneous violence. Xenophobic attacks are rare but regular in a country where people are easily riled to aggression. Britain, conversely, has a welfare system, and talks about its commitment to human rights.

Why, then, is South Africa a preferred choice for millions of people?

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Drive through any working-class suburb or squatter community in South Africa and you’ll find Bangladeshis and Somalis selling goods from little, ramshackle stalls. Ask to see your bank manager and he’s probably Zimbabwean, and most restaurant waiters certainly are. Your taxi driver might be Bulgarian or Burundian, Russian or Rwandan. Nail salons staffed by Thai and Vietnamese women can be found in any mall. Many of these people have no papers. 

South African law clearly defines illegal immigration, but the state for the most part takes a lenient approach. Perhaps that’s lethargy. More likely it’s because immigration is good for an economy that’s grown threefold since the advent of full democracy in 1994. More likely still, it’s because, for all their rage and willingness to shoot one another, South Africans have empathy for people who are doing something to improve their lives. 

Migrants don’t come to Britain for welfare, and neither need nor want it. They come from countries where state welfare is an unfamiliar concept, and they likely think it’s a bit silly. For most, their experience of government is brutal and negative, making them naturally suspicious and cynical. 

Take Zimbabweans, who are as educated as any British-born citizen. They’re paying their taxes and prospering. If they don’t prosper, they’ve got their community for support. The state is redundant. This is hard to understand in countries where the state has displaced family and community as caregiver. 

Both left and right are equally blameworthy. The left for its belief in the state and sincerely held faith in welfare. The right for everything from open displays of racism to the idea that migrants take ‘’British jobs.’’ 

Migrants aren’t running to Britain, they’re running away from oppressive and destitute homelands, from failed and failing states. Britain’s only usefulness lies in the universality of its language. That distinction isn’t semantics, and people like Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak know this, even as they refuse to apologize to an octogenarian holocaust-era Jewish woman whose family fled Nazi Europe. 

So why do countries renowned for violence seem more relaxed about migrants than the UK, despite sporadic xenophobic rampages? It’s a paradox worth scholarly study and the answers might be surprising.

A Congolais Uber driver in Johannesburg told me it’s because “here you don’t have to change. You can stay with your own people just like home and no one says you must follow this custom or that way because this is their country. Here I do not have to adapt. In the DRC we say, ‘Si tu dis aux gens de vivre ensemble, tu leur dis de se quereller. If you tell people to live together, you tell them to quarrel. I do not want to quarrel.’’

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