'Business as usual': don't exclude anyone - Polity

25 May 2020 - No doubt many South Africans wish for something like a ‘return to normality’. However imperfect that may have been, it was at least familiar and navigable. Unfortunately, this comes with a dark side.

Terence Corrigan

No doubt many South Africans wish for something like a ‘return to normality’. However imperfect that may have been, it was at least familiar and navigable. Unfortunately, this comes with a dark side.

Few themes are as enduring and consistent in our politics as the ‘foreigner question’. So, it is unsurprising that this has emerged in in discussion about South Africa’s post-Covid-19 future.

The Congress of the People has brought this into sharp relief with a recent statement about its vision for the country after the pandemic ends. ‘We say that it can't be business as usual,’ the party says. ‘The economy must be restructured and priority must be given to the people of South Africa, without discriminating against foreign nationals.’

It goes on to demand 90% quotas for South Africa citizens on restaurants and farms, that manufacturing companies must give ‘priority’ to South Africans.

The statement nods to the stance of finance minister Tito Mboweni. ‘The proportion of South Africans working in a restaurant must be greater than that of non-South Africans’, the minister said last month. Spaza shops, he added, would need to be registered for tax and to operate a bank account. Cope agreed with this, adding that spaza shops would need to be licenced to operate.

And presumably informal business and hawking would also need to be reserved for South Africans.

Certainly, there is plenty of precedent for this. One of the more notorious examples was the remark by then small business development minister Lindiwe Sisulu in January 2015 in the tense environment after a Somali shopkeeper had allegedly shot a local teenager.  ‘Foreigners need to understand that they are here as a courtesy and our priority is to the people of this country first and foremost,’ she declared. Foreign businesspeople would need to ensure that their local counterparts were competitive: ‘They cannot barricade themselves in and not share their practices with local business owners.’

He colleague, Nomvula Mokonyane – then minister of water and sanitation – chimed in on social media: ‘Our townships cannot be a site of subtle takeover and build up for other situations we have seen in other countries. I am ready to state my view formally in defence of our communities.’

It’s remarkable that ministers in a constitutional democracy – never mind a country whose constitution is as expansive on rights as our own – could express these sentiments to little censure from their colleagues.

It’s also remarkable on its own that a minister supposedly dedicated to promoting small business would think in these terms. Maintaining a competitive edge is a bog-standard practice for any successful businessperson – and it generally benefits consumers too. Besides, the idea that ‘foreigners’ dominate this space has been challenged by research by the Gauteng City Region Observatory. It found that only about 18% of informal business owners in the province were from outside the country. 

This is, of course, a substantial proportion of the informal economy. But their ‘practices’ are not secret. They have been studied in detail. We at the IRR published a report on the matter in 2017. ‘Foreigner’ businesses are run by people in networks with high levels of internal trust, scour suppliers looking for bargains, work long hours for limited returns, offer good value for money. In many instances, there are advantages in terms of literacy and numeracy over South Africans – an indictment of our education system.

The notion that they can simply be displaced for the benefit of South African competitors is to ignore the reasons for their success. It is a strategy for even more immiseration. None of this is in the least surprising, as these patterns have been demonstrated across the world.

(Incidentally, introducing licencing for informal operators recalls the much-criticised Licensing of Business Bill of 2013. This, too, misunderstands the reasons the informal sector exists in the first place – and would do no small amount of harm to it.)

But perhaps it is easier to point fingers at the ‘foreigners’ in our midst and to imagine that they occupy places that belong to us a right.

This seldom ends well. Xenophobic progroms are familiar eruptions in our politics, and they are probably made inevitable by the combative, divisive, identity-based nature of so much of our politics. They reflect no credit on South Africa. (It remains, by the way, to be seen how purging foreigners in the post-Covid-19 economy will be done ‘without discriminating against foreign nationals.’)

Xenophobia, no matter how justified, always risks jumping fences. Last year, in a disturbing instance that drew attention both in South Africa and abroad, the Emerald Dale Farm in Donnybrook in KwaZulu-Natal came under siege. Mobs blocked entrances and threatened the staff. Property was destroyed and livestock mutilated. Desultory police action – at least initially – allowed the problem to deepen for days (the Sheriff of the Court was unable to serve a court interdict on the protesters and the police commander said he had resources to provide the necessary protection).

The spark that set this off were demands by a group of former employees over the farm’s employment of a miniscule number of Zimbabweans, who were in any event legally resident in South Africa and who held skills that were not readily available.

And as a result, some 350 jobs, and the monthly injection of millions of rands into the local economy were threatened.

There is a lesson in this. An exclusionary, political solution to an economic predicament is almost guaranteed to aggravate what it seeks to address. At a time like this, we need to recognize the contributions that can be made by all of us in the country, citizen or otherwise.

Indeed, as the country seems intent on pursuing similar paths in other areas – more racial diktats and the degradation of property rights – it’s a lesson of concern to all of us.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).