Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
From the window of my office in Parliament, I can see the Slave Lodge directly over the road. It was built in 1679 to house the slaves of the Dutch East India Company. More than a century later, in 1807, the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire. Slaves in the Cape rebelled the following year.
This is all such ancient history, but it should never be far from our consciousness, for slavery still exists. It is estimated that there are some 30 million slaves worldwide today. Debt bondage, indentured servitude and bonded labour are merely euphemisms.
A leading abolitionist calculated the average price of a slave in 2009, as compared to the price in 1809, and found that, despite mankind’s move towards a human rights culture, we value human life less now in economic terms. In 2009 a slave cost $90. Two hundred years ago, the average price was $40 000; taken at today’s monetary value.
It seems it is all about money, which is not surprising.
In 1997, the American documentary film-maker Michael Moore pointed out, "It would take 1 percent of Nike’s entire advertising budget to put its whole workforce of 12,000 above the poverty line." In 2011, we still stereotypically think of slave labour as something that only happens in sweat shops in Asia, far removed from our own reality.
But that is simply not the case. South Africa struggles with the evil of human trafficking and is known as both a transit and a destination country.
Sadly, we are also a source. While we have made efforts to tackle human trafficking, we remain on the second tier of the annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) that tracks governments around the world. Tier Two countries are those that do not meet the minimum standards.
It’s disheartening that we have not made more progress. During my tenure as Minister of Home Affairs, TIP consistently deemed our efforts to combat human trafficking significant enough to keep South Africa off the watch list. After all this work, it pained me to see South Africa drop onto the watch list immediately after I left, and stay there for the next four years.
Clearly we cannot let our guard down and stop being vigilant. Human trafficking is but one of the demons of migration. Another is xenophobia.
I was appalled to read comments made by the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs recently. In front of the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs and the Deputy Director General for Immigration Services, neither of whom contradicted her, the Chairperson marvelled that there was anyone left in Somalia. She suggested they were all at the Refugee Reception Office in Maitland.
She went on to say that South Africa’s economy would suffer if we continued to take in refugees who, she averred, used our Constitution and human rights laws as an excuse to enter South Africa. Finally she suggested that asylum seekers were the reason South Africans had not enjoyed their freedom since 1994.
There is a vast difference between asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.
An ANC MP, particularly in the Home Affairs portfolio, should know better.
Clandestine migration certainly causes all sorts of problems for our country, from town planning to an overburdened social service infrastructure. But to lay all these problems at the door of refugees is a reprehensible error.
Our Government needs to work much smarter to prevent abuses of the asylum seeker system, for we are moving closer and closer to the tipping point at which the veracity of an asylum claim will be irrelevant in the mind of South Africans. All will be painted with the brush of hate. And that is where xenophobia will catch flame.
The Chairperson of the Home Affairs Portfolio Committee later apologised for her xenophobic comments.
The next day, allegations of police intimidation surfaced in the Somali community in Mayfair, Johannesburg after a joint operation by police units and Home Affairs immigration officers closed down Amal Shopping Centre.
Armed plainclothes policemen allegedly fired shots, forced patrons to lie face down on the floor and cut wires to security cameras.
The timing is mere coincidence, for acts of xenophobia have arisen in many places, against many nationalities, many times in the past. South Africa struggles with xenophobia, which makes offhand, insensitive comments highly inflammatory.
But it’s not just a matter of what we say. The real problem is what we fundamentally believe. If we believe South Africa needs to shut its doors to foreigners in distress, let us not talk about ubuntu botho.
When I was Minister of Home Affairs I piloted migration legislation that sought to open the door wider to investment and tourism, while closing it more firmly on illegal entry. We acknowledged all the problems of South Africa’s porous border, of exponentially increasing movement of people, of economic migrants and lack of capacity. But we challenged Government to seek solutions that upheld South Africa’s human rights culture.
It can be done. Start by moving Refugee Reception Offices closer to our borders. This will dispose of the nonsensical and inhumane demand that people with very limited means must travel halfway across South Africa within five days to present themselves to a RRO. The likelihood of genuine asylum seekers becoming undocumented migrants will decrease, and the line between who we need to help and who we need to deport will become far clearer.
There is a line, and blurring it further can only cause problems.
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP