The State Of The South African Refugee Protection Regime: Part III - Party Politics

Asylum has become a battleground for party politics and electioneering.This brief - the third in a three-part series - reviews the asylum policies and statements of four of South Africa’s major political parties (the ANC, DA, EFF and COPE) in the run up to the 2019 election.


This brief reviews the policies and statements of four of South Africa’s major political parties (the ANC, DA, EFF and COPE) in the run up to the 2019 election. In a competition for public support, it appears that the ANC, DA and COPE exploit the issue of asylum by:

  • conflating asylum-seekers with migrants under the same “undesirable” and “undeserving” umbrella; and
  • competing for ownership of the ‘securitisation discourse’, which constructs all low-skilled foreigners as criminals trying to take something from the South African citizen.

Whilst capitalising on the worst fears of South Africans has the potential to solicit political support and electoral gain, such tactics are irreconcilable for parties claiming to respect human rights.

The state of affairs (key findings from Parts I and II)

  1. The number of people seeking asylum in South Africa is exaggerated in public discourse. In 2017, there were 24 174 applications for asylum.[1] Despite Constitutional protections, asylum-seekers in South Africa are vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and deportation, xenophobic violence, police negligence, corruption, job insecurity and the prospect of being turned away from hospitals and schools
  2. The number of recognised refugees in South Africa is exaggerated in public discourse. It is estimated that there are currently close to 120 000. Of the 28 000 asylum applications in 2017, South Africa approved only 479 individual refugee claims[2]. The inefficient asylum system forces genuine refugees to wait years (up to fifteen) for recognition
  3. Public discourse conflates refugees and economic migrants. Refugees are people escaping war or persecution – they flee to South Africa for their lives. Economic migrants come to South Africa for a better life
  4. South Africa is home to some 2.8 million migrants (documented and undocumented). Despite the dominant discourse, the OECD argues that immigration in South Africa is not responsible for a reduction of the employment rate of the native-born population[3]
  5. A large proportion of migrants are undocumented (i.e. illegal). Rather than indicating that migrants are inherently fraudulent or criminal, this points to the porousness of our borders and the inefficacy of our immigration channels and processes

This brief deals primarily with party politics and asylum, though some of its conclusions may apply to migration. It speaks to the importance of discourse: the fact that even if policy or rhetoric is not carried out in practice, it can inspire ideas and actions. Anti-refugee discourse can thus have tangible and destructive effects.

The problem with securitisation

‘Securitisation’ is the process whereby political actors turn an issue into a matter of security. Asylum is securitised by the repeated characterisation of refugees as fraudsters, criminals or terrorists. This can produce a ‘state of exception’ thereby legitimating extraordinary measures to deal with the alleged security threat, in the process violating international and domestic law and eroding asylum-seekers’ rights.

In the securitised environment, politicians become ‘managers of unease’, attempting and appearing to protect citizens by referring to refugees as threatening. This is sometimes paired with blame deflection – “it is the refugees’ fault that you have poor healthcare/ unemployment/ crime”. The result is a ratcheting up of anti-refugee sentiment and policy which undermines refugee protection and underlying values of human worth and dignity.

Importantly, in South Africa, the securitisation of migration reinforces anti-refugee sentiment, as economic migration and asylum seeking are routinely conflated and enabled by a generalised fear of the (African) foreigner.

The ANC: An asylum-seeker is a migrant, is a criminal

Between 1994 and now, the ANC has performed an epic U-turn in its policies on asylum.

As indicated in the first brief in this series, the Mandela administration was characterised by values of freedom, integration and dignity. The 1998 Refugees Act extended the Bill of Rights to all people in South Africa, regardless of nationality or legal status. Asylum-seekers were guaranteed freedom of movement and the right to work and study – far exceeding UN and AU standards.

Under Mbeki, the ANC stood by its rights-based approach with a renewed focus on African unity. A wave of xenophobic attacks in 2008 inspired the ANC’s pledge to do ‘everything necessary to ensure that refugees and South Africans lived side-by-side again’.[4]

However, since the Zuma administration, asylum policy has shifted. The ANC attempts to dissuade asylum-seekers from coming to South Africa by restricting the right to work and proposing encampment over integration (see 2017 Refugees Amendment Act[5] and White Paper[6]). The system is severely under-resourced and ridden with corruption and xenophobia.

In political statements and parliamentary discussions, ANC members routinely conflate asylum-seekers and migrants, and then link them to crime and unemployment (see Part II). Accusing refugees of criminal behaviour, Zuma stated in 2017 that ‘[i]n other countries refugees are put in camps, but because we respect the human rights here, we don’t. But if they operate the way they do they may be forcing us to discriminate [against] them’.

From the context of Ramaphosa’s “New Dawn”, ANC parliamentarians continue to stress the need for border security given that ‘some asylum-seekers or refugees could be criminals in their country of origin’ and that ‘[i]nnocence should not be assumed’.[7]

In November 2018, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi added a further dimension to the discourse, claiming that undocumented foreigners are overburdening clinics and hospitals: ‘They cause overcrowding, infection control starts failing’. Critics have responded that indeed, hospitals and clinics are stretched to the limit, but not because of foreigners. As one critic put it: ‘The crisis in the healthcare sector is due to years of mismanagement, understaffing, poor planning and corruption’.[8] Amnesty International stated that ‘Minister Motsoaledi should stop this shameless scapegoating of refugees and migrants’ and ‘fuelling xenophobia’.[9]

That same month, National Council of the Provinces (NCOP) Chairperson ThandiModise blamed foreigners for poor service delivery in Gauteng.[10]

The DA: Secure the border, control migration

The DA’s initial approach to asylum was liberal and rights-based, evident in its 2009 manifesto: ‘Citizens, visitors and investors must be able to obtain documents and services they need, and move themselves and their goods around the country and across our borders freely and quickly’.[11]

In Parliament in 2010, the DA pressured the Department of Home Affairs to address the ‘inordinately high rejection rate of refugee applications’ and the prospect of permanent residence for asylum-seekers whose status determination takes five years or more.[12]

Since then, the party has become preoccupied with border security. In its 2019 election manifesto, the DA states that ‘[n]o country in the world can afford to not secure their borders as uncontrolled immigration violates the rights of ordinary South Africans who have to compete for scarce resources’.[13] The DA makes a welcome distinction between refugees and migrants, asserting that secure borders are a precondition for assisting genuine refugees.

However, DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s securitisation and “strong borders” discourse has become a central component of the party’s 2019 election campaign – and one that has garnered extensive media attention.[14] In Parliament this year, DA members Hoosen and Figan have pointed repeatedly to the abuse of the asylum-system by economic migrants and the need for border control to ensure that immigration is confined to those with high skills.[15]

Trying to reconcile control with liberalism, the DA would be at home in Europe, where liberal parties stress the “security threat” of asylum in popularity contests with populists.

A recent Twitter comment by Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba added a xenophobic edge to the DA discourse. In response to a photograph of an informal trader with a trolley full of animal parts, Mashaba wrote ‘[W]e are going to sit back and allow people like you to bring us Ebola in the name of small business’, ‘[H]ealth of our people first’.[16]

COPE: Put citizens first and refugees in camps

COPE had no firm policy on refugees until its president MosiuoaLekota became an outspoken advocate for encampment.

Neither COPE’s founding manifesto nor its 2014 one make any mention of asylum or migration – a strategic omission in light of its claim to being ‘unique among South African parties in addressing the issue of national identity openly’.[17] The party was either absent or silent at the parliamentary debates on the Refugees Amendment Bill in 2010.[18]

But, in 2018, Lekota has single-handedly filled the omission: ‘South Africa must look after its own, first and foremost’ he said during his coalition speech, proceeding to call on government to introduce refugee camps for foreigners.[19] ‘We were in exile ourselves. Our own South Africans were abroad. We were not allowed to occupy the cities of those countries and then push the citizens out’.[20]

The EFF: Defend fellow Africans’ rights, dignity and freedom

While the ANC, COPE and the DA battle it out in a securitisation contest, the EFF appears to capitalise on the better nature of the South African people.

This is in line with its pan-Africanist vision and its founding manifesto that the ‘EFF will advocate for the ultimate integration of the African continent through the erosion and eventual elimination of unnecessary [colonial] borders’.[21] Its 2014 manifesto spoke directly to the issue of xenophobia, promising that the EFF will ensure ‘that all workers enjoy the same rights as set out in labour law irrespective of their immigration status’. The decriminalisation of all types of migration, it argues, will benefit the economy.[22]

In 2015, the EFF made a visit to the Isipingo transit camp in KwaZulu-Natal to distribute aid to asylum-seekers. After the visit, the party called on the South African government to provide adequate services in the camps immediately: ‘The least the government can do is to give them decent treatment all human-beings deserve’.[23] The EFF went on to accuse Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini of ‘verbally abusing’ the refugees for accepting EFF aid.

Lumka Oliphant, the spokesperson of ANC’s Bathabile Dlamini, lashed back, stating that ‘to reduce this tragedy to charity, food and blankets shows immaturity and lack of understanding of what is faced by the country’.[24] The Department of Social Development accused the EFF of ‘capitalising on the plight of foreign nationals to score political points’.

In October 2017, the EFF reaffirmed its position in Parliament. In response to the White Paper on Migration, the party emphasised a number of important issues, including the need for the proposed Refugee Processing Centres to respect the rights of asylum-seekers to work and study. EFF Deputy Secretary, HlengiweHlope, raised concerns about the government’s unwillingness to resource the asylum system and asserted that ‘[f]oreigners need South Africa and South Africa needed them’, recalling that during the liberation struggle, South Africans were offered shelter by neighbouring states. She concluded that the Department of Home Affairs has behaved irresponsibly in its overemphasis of security concerns, which stand in opposition to freedom of movement and a mutually beneficial migration policy.[25]

In November 2018 at an NCOP sitting, NkagisangKoni, member of the EFF, blasted ministers scapegoating foreigners for their failure in service delivery, understaffing hospitals and resources taken by corrupt officials.[26]

EFF support is significant in the border regions where xenophobia flairs up frequently. One wonders whether their communication with voters is consistent with these policy ideals. Either way, their opposing discourse is valuable against the majority attitude of exclusion. The problem is, it has its own exclusive dimension.

The EFF’s concern for refugees appears to be determined by their race. Comments frequently refer to “blackness”: ‘What has befallen these black foreign nationals is tantamount to crimes against humanity’.[27] These references suggest that for the EFF, race is a precondition for deservingness. The concept of human rights – as rights applying to all human beings – appears to be beyond the grasp of the EFF.


South African political parties are tending to sacrifice refugee protection for political gain. The South African population is especially susceptible to fear of “the other”, and in the current political environment, parties compete for that fear. Asylum has become a battleground for party politics and electioneering, fuelling xenophobia and racism, and undermining a rational and compassionate approach to the issue.

Tove van Lennep

[1]Department of Home Affairs, 2017. Asylum Metrix Full Year Report, p10

[2]Department of Home Affairs, 2017. Asylum Metrix Full Year Report, p29

[5] Refugees Amendment Act 11 of 2017, Section 18

[6] White Paper on International Migration for South Africa 2017, Chapter 12, p61

[8] Mail & Guardian, 20 November 2018. Are foreigners stealing your jobs and healthcare?

[15] Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 16 August 2018. Immigration Amendment Bill: public hearings; Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 24 October 2017. White Paper on Migration: border refugee processing facilities: implementation by Home Affairs

[17] COPE, 2018. Manifesto

[18] Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 01 November 2010. Refugees Amendment Bill [B30-2010]: Department response to submissions ; Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 25 October 2010. Refugee Amendment Bill [B30-2010]: public hearings; Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 08 November 2010. Refugees Amendment Bill [B30-2010]: changes made due to Committee concerns in response to public submissions

[21] Mail & Guardian, 25 February 2014. EFF election manifesto plays it safe

[22] Mail & Guardian, 25 February 2014. EFF election manifesto plays it safe

[23]MbuyiseniQuintinNdlozi (EFF), 26 April 2015. Xenophobia: Conditions in refugee camps horrific

[27]MbuyiseniQuintinNdlozi (EFF), 26 April 2015. Xenophobia: Conditions in refugee camps horrific