Why support for Palestine, foreign policy may not save ANC at South Africa elections

Why support for Palestine, foreign policy may not save ANC at South Africa elections
Under ANC dire living conditions and the growing gap between the rich and the poor make this election potentially a watershed moment
7 min read
South Africa
24 May, 2024
Democratic Alliance supporters on the streets demonstrating against corruption [Joseph Chirume]

Millions of South Africans will be heading to the polls on 29 May 2024 to elect a new parliament which will choose the next government. The elections have come at a challenging time for the country, which is grappling with record-high unemployment, skyrocketing crime rates, a deteriorating healthcare system, and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment.

According to the country's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), South Africa has 27,672,264 registered voters. A total of 70 political parties and eleven independent candidates will participate in the election.

The dire living conditions and the growing gap between the rich and the poor make this election potentially a watershed moment, as voters have more choices than in previous years.

A 2022 World Bank report highlights South Africa as the most unequal country in the world, where 10% of the population owns more than 80% of the wealth. The report also notes that 18.2 million people live in extreme poverty out of a population of 62 million.

Some populist politicians have blamed poverty and unemployment on the influx of immigrants, claiming that expelling foreigners, mostly from elsewhere in the African continent, would open up opportunities for South Africans.

For the first time since the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is at risk of losing its majority. Voters are increasingly blaming the party for their hardships and suffering.

This year under the ANC, South Africa successfully took Israel to the International Court of Justice, where the Zionist state was charged with war crimes committed in Gaza. But these foreign policy achievements which include growing South African influence in the BRICS bloc and interventions on behalf of Palestinians may not be enough to solidify the ANC's hold on power despite this earning it the endorsement of small Muslim parties in the country such as Al Jama-ah.

Opposition leaders point to several issues: the ANC-led government's failure to create jobs, its inability to control widespread corruption in public offices, the poor state of the public health sector, and the decline in local government services.

Democratic Alliance supporters on the streets demonstrating against corruption [Joseph Chirume]

Anti-immigrant sentiment

Political parties scapegoating foreigners have unsurprisingly resonated with many unemployed youths and some disgruntled South African township business operators who feel overtaken by foreign business people.

Parties like the Patriotic Alliance (PA) and ActionSA thrive by manipulating realities on the ground to push their anti-immigrant narrative.

This has been reinforced by a recent Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) report, which found that South Africa has the highest unemployment rate in the world at 32.1%, with 16,403,000 people not economically active.

To tap into the pool of unemployed voters, the Patriotic Alliance (PA) has made significant inroads. They have visited the country’s land borders, blocking irregular immigrants from entering. The PA has also been inspecting shops and factories, demanding valid permits from foreign employees.

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“We will do mass deportation when we come into power. There are 11 million illegal foreigners in South Africa while six million of them have jobs. By mass deporting, I will be creating six million jobs and we will give them to South Africans,” said PA President Gayton McKenzie at a recent meeting with journalists.

The PA’s slogan, #Abahambe, meaning “Let them (foreigners) go,” has been embraced by many South Africans who hope for jobs, houses, and a better life.

Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie's election campaign poster [Joseph Chirume]

One of the party’s fliers reads, “When Kenny Kunene (PA deputy president) was Acting Mayor of Johannesburg for two days, he took on the arrogance and criminality of illegal foreigners. He demolished places used for drug selling by Nigerians, caught cable thieves, and raided their hideouts. Lets’ give him the Premiership of Gauteng.”

ActionSA is another party fiercely campaigning for the mass deportation of foreigners. Its president, Herman Mashaba, a renowned businessman and former mayor of Johannesburg, once caused a social media uproar by tweeting that there were 15 million undocumented foreigners in the country shortly after forming his party in 2020.

However, many statements by these anti-immigrant parties have been found to be fabrications.

The 2022 census conducted by StatsSA showed that there were 2.4 million foreign-born people in South Africa, making up 3% of the more than 62 million people living in the country, disproving the claim of 15 million immigrants.

The spread of anti-immigrant rhetoric has prompted some migrants to caution these politicians.

Chris Mapingure, Chairman of the Zimbabwe Migrants Support Network, slammed politicians for scapegoating foreigners.

Mapingure told The New Arab, “It is absolutely unfortunate that we are witnessing eminent politicians going around the country seeking votes by inflaming xenophobic sentiments. It is not good and this creates a lot of tension between locals and migrants. We urge fellow immigrants to remain positive and always avoid places that have tension. Refrain from visiting hotspots and if possible don’t engage in political discussions in public. Travel with all your documents to ensure you’re safe.”

The ruling ANC itself has also been blamed for fanning xenophobic tensions through the actions of the Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi. He is accused of making populist statements and rushing to amend several immigration laws to appease a section of South African voters.

Critics say his refusal to extend the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit and the Lesotho Exemption Permit is aimed at expelling nearly 200,000 permit holders from South Africa.

“Imagine living in the country legally for more than 12 years, and the Minister just says he will not extend the permit for another period. This is going to cause chaos and massive displacement of people. We can say this is only done to buy votes from people who view migrants as the cause of the country's unemployment,” added a leader of the Basotho (Lesotho) people, requesting anonymity.

Critics also argue that the publication of the White Paper on Citizenship, Immigration, and Refugee Protection was strategically timed to lure voters, claiming the document scapegoats foreigners.

Loren B Landau, Co-Director of the Wits-Oxford Mobility Governance Lab at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Rebecca Walker, Research Associate at the African Centre for Migration & Society, argue that the White Paper's proposals are vague and seek to solve problems unrelated to immigration.

“Collectively, we have studied immigration policy and practice in South Africa and elsewhere for almost 40 years. Based on this experience, we find that the White Paper does not provide an empirical foundation for effective, developmental policy reform,” Landau and Walker commented.

They argue that the proposals are vague and address problems rooted more in bureaucratic and political mismanagement than in immigration.

“It provides a smokescreen to hide government faults. Perhaps it is intended to distract voters in the 2024 elections from the increasing inequalities and socio-economic challenges in South Africa,” Landau and Walker added.

The two experts highlight several false claims in the White Paper document.

"Case in point: the document states that 150,997 people in South Africa have been granted citizenship by naturalization. This number is used to justify radically narrowing pathways to citizenship. Yet, this figure represents less than 0.2% of the country’s population of 62 million.

"The suggestion that citizenship is easily accessed—especially through the asylum process—is bizarre. This could only happen if asylum cases were effectively processed. They are not.

“Since the Refugees Act was passed in 1998, only about 300,000 people have been granted refugee status. Many of these have since left South Africa or needed to reapply, so they have been counted more than once. Of these 300,000, only a small percentage have become permanent residents, let alone citizens.

"The paper’s most remarkable self-delusion is in its estimates of between 5 million and 13 million immigrants. These estimates have been debunked. Stats SA Census 2022 indicates that the percentage of immigrants in the country has declined in the last decade to close to 2.4 million—somewhere around 4% of the total population of 62 million. The previous census (2010) put the figure at 4.4% of a total population of 52 million," Landau and Walker commented. 

The two researchers argue that while immigration can be a challenge, it does not explain why South Africans spend days without light, water, jobs, or hope of addressing economic inequality.

"Immigrants are not the reason why the health service is failing or infrastructure is crumbling. And immigrants are not responsible for most of the country’s crime," they argue.

They conclude by saying, "The White Paper does not outline an approach to improve immigration policy. Its proposals are vague and the problems it seeks to solve are not about immigration."
Joseph Chirume is a freelance journalist from Zimbabwe based in South Africa, writing on human rights and immigration issues with a focus on the South African landscape.