People’s March Anti Xenophobia Jeppe street, Johannesburg, by Dyltong, via commons.wikimedia.org, CC-BY-SA 4.0

South Africa & Brazil: Immigration Hubs Out of Steam

In the current tough economic climate in emerging economies, the need for effective migration policies is critical. Retaining home-grown skills and avoiding civil conflict are some of the greatest challenges for countries like South Africa and Brazil.

This article is part of our “Migration & Transformation” series. Many governments and civil societies in developing and transition countries are confronted with the influx of larger numbers of displaced people. BTI experts and journalists investigate the political, economic and social challenges facing host countries such as Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Africa and Turkey. The authors identify problems and problem-solving strategies on the ground and assess multilateral responses.

The rapid economic growth experienced by emerging economies during the previous decade has brought the importance of effective migration policies into sharp focus. For these countries it has become increasingly important to ensure that population flows across their borders are managed in ways that sustain growth, but also help to consolidate existing development gains.

The challenges are two-fold. The first relates to the need to counter the brain drain to the developed north, where the burden of ageing populations has become a major concern for policy makers. The changing demographic composition of these societies will have a profound long-term impact on the sustainability of their social welfare systems and their ability to innovate and, as a result, scarce skills are increasingly supplemented by young, highly qualified migrants from emerging economies.

The gain of the north, inevitably, becomes the loss of the south, which requires these skills to modernise, expand economic infrastructure, and push back the developmental backlogs caused by poverty and inequality. Without them important gains in the improvement of livelihoods may stagnate or even be reversed.

As such, the retention of home-grown skills has to be a priority, but given the reality of globalized labor markets, migration policy needs to simplify processes that enable skills acquisition in the areas where they are needed most.

Civil strife between local poor and migrants

The second challenge is to ensure that migration policy properly regulates population flows to these countries in ways that do not overwhelm their capacity to address the needs of their most vulnerable citizens.

Often located in regions that lag in terms of economic development, the rapid growth of these economies have made them magnets to migrants in search of a better life. Yet, many of these states are themselves still battling to address substantial developmental deficits. While they are obliged to comply with international humanitarian law in accommodating those that are fleeing adversity, failure to manage such flows, as well as public opinion of its impact on the state’s limited means, have the potential to ignite civil strife between poor citizens who feel economically exposed on the one hand, and migrants who are accused of draining scarce resources on the other. This becomes particularly acute under circumstances of economic stagnation or decline, such as that currently experienced in several emerging economies

Two of these appear to be particularly vulnerable. Brazil, the Latin American powerhouse, and South Africa, Africa’s most developed economy, have in recent years seen dramatic reversals in their economic fortunes. Having grown robustly on the back of the commodities boom of the previous decade, both of these resource rich countries started to make inroads into the developmental backlogs of their respective societies.

Poverty levels receded as a result of targeted social interventions in both countries, and while inequality continued its upward surge in South Africa to make one of the most unequal in the world, Brazil managed to bring down its Gini coefficient from 0.61 in 1990 to 0.54 in 2009.

Since the global economic crisis of 2008/9 and the subsequent slowdown in the Chinese economy, emerging markets, and resource exporters in particular, have lost their lustre in the eyes of investors.

As a result the Brazilian economy, currently in recession, finds itself in what has been described as its worst economic crisis in over a century, after its sovereign credit rating has been downgraded to junk status by all the major international credit ratings agencies. South Africa, for its part, is also hovering in recession territory with growth predicted not to exceed 0.7% in 2016, and the specter of junk status looming after all ratings agencies have downgraded their outlook to the lowest possible investment grade.

To compound matters for both, alleged financial impropriety is taking its toll at the highest levels of both governments. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has been suspended from office and is currently fighting impeachment due to accusations that she has manipulated the government budget, while South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, has just managed to avert this fate, following a Constitutional Court verdict that he had forsaken his presidential oath after refusing to reimburse the state for improvements to his private home.

With both governments engaged in battles for their political survival, questions must be raised about the extent to which their abilities to address pertinent policy issues are not being compromised at a time when social pressures are mounting in the respective countries.

Attacks on migrants in South Africa is on the rise

One of these is the question of xenophobia. During the good years Brazil saw a steady stream of economic migrants, particularly from Haiti and Bolivia, arriving in search of better opportunities. These communities are now increasingly falling victim to heightened levels of xenophobia, the worst of which was the shooting of 7 Haitians in August last year in Sao Paulo, the country’s largest city.

While South Africa’s economic indicators may paint a marginally better picture, precedent suggests that a lapse in the proper administration of migration policy may make it more vulnerable than its Latin American counterpart.

In 2008, as state institutions became embroiled in a debilitating leadership struggle between former President Thabo  Mbeki and the current president, Jacob Zuma, and one year before the country entered its first recession in almost two decades, South Africa experienced a wave of horrendous xenophobic attacks that resulted in the deaths of 62 people, primarily from elsewhere on the African continent.

Because they were so consumed by the ANC’s internal battles at the time, the violence caught the country’s police and intelligence agencies unawares and the initial knee-jerk reaction of the country’s government was to insinuate that it was part of a right-wing political plot to destabilise the country. Research in its aftermath pointed to economic insecurity as a major motivating factor, which manifested in perceptions that migrants were responsible for criminal activity, the abuse of the social welfare system, and the undercutting of local businesses with lower prices in poor neighborhoods.

The latest edition of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index, also highlights this and notes that, “migrants and refugees from neighboring countries often face discrimination and negative attitudes by South Africans toward these groups of immigrants are prevailing. … Frustration and anxiety regarding the future has also led to a latent propensity for violence that regularly expresses itself in xenophobia and attacks on migrants from other African countries.”

In 2015, as the economy continued to slow down amid rising unemployment and spiking living costs, xenophobic attacks once more erupted in some of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods. Again, perceptions of poor citizens suffering at the expense of foreign nationals, seemed to be the driving force behind this latest spate of violence directed at migrants, and again these events coincided with heightened levels of factionalism within the ANC, this time centering around the polarising presidency of Jacob Zuma.

As this debilitating battle continued into 2016, institutions of governance once again seemed to be distracted by attempts to consolidate political power bases. As the term ‘state capture’ increasingly finds traction in the country’s political discourse, it arguably, leaves the country exposed on many fronts. With xenophobic sentiment still rife, heightened levels of economic distress, and a governance void that is emerging as a result of the lack of political focus, the country will have to be vigilant not to repeat its costly mistakes of 2008.

Jan Hofmeyr heads the Policy and Analysis Program at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Cape Town. Hofmeyr is one of 246 country experts who worked on the latest edition of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index, BTI 2016. He writes this text in his personal capacity.


Photo: People’s March Anti Xenophobia Jeppe street, Johannesburg, outside Little Etheopia, by Dyltong, via commons.wikimedia.org, CC-BY-SA 4.0

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