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South Africa and migration: a conversation with Zaheera Jinnah

Zaheera JinnahDr Zaheera Jinnah* is an anthropologist and researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society, University of Witswatersrand. She works in the area of labour migration and the Somali diaspora, and teaches and supervises post graduate students in the Migration and Displacement programme at ACMS. She collaborated with Lorenzo Fioramonti and Chris Nshimbi at MiWORC (Migration for Work Research Consortium)

Q: Dr Jinnah, You investigated low and high skilled migration to South Africa, would you say that the country’s economy is dependent on low skilled foreign labour? Why?

With an unemployment rate of 25% South Africa, I wouldn’t say it is entirely dependent on low skilled foreign labour, as there is a sufficient supply of workers at that skills level domestically. However foreign workers play a significant role in the SA economy and the issue of low skilled foreign labour goes beyond a simple dependency debate. Historically the recruitment model of the mining sector, which formed the cornerstone of the SA economy, favoured foreign male workers. This practice resisted in a number of dynamics that can be seen today: contract labour on the mines, low wages and the remnants of a hostel system, regional households whose livelihoods depend on remittances, etc. In recent times, other  sectors  of the SA economy such as domestic work, security and hospitality employ foreign workers.
It is clear that there is a shortage of skills in certain professions such as health care, engineering, etc., and that domestic training is not sufficient to meet this need. For instance 13% of medical practitioners employed in the public sector are foreign nationals.

Q: How does migration impact the South African society?

South Africa has struggled to define the role of and manage migration in the period after apartheid. Although it has progressive policy in place to protect non-nationals, particularly refugees and asylum seekers, in practice  a negative discourse on migration abounds.

Migrants are seen as a threat to jobs, to safety and to the national building project in SA. This is unfortunate because if migration is well managed it can have positive impacts for migrants and the country and region.

Q: How are the rights of the migrants protected in South Africa?

South Africa’s constitution, the highest law in the country, makes no distinction on the basis of nationality or documentation. So migrants and refugees are entitled to all of the same rights and protection under SA law as SA nationals are, with the exception of holding public office and voting. In practice though, migrants face a number of challenges including xenophobia, a stiff private market for accessing housing and employment, and the threat of harassment, detention and deportation from the police.

*Dr Zaheera Jinnah can be reached on zaheera.jinnah@wits.ac.za