Migration is a politically charged and increasingly divisive issue, globally and in SA. In the US, for example, migration has been used as a trump card (pun intended) for electioneering.

The country heads to its midterm elections this week and how the government under President Donald Trump has dealt with migration will come fully into focus.

There could be lessons for SA, where the issue of migration is often so politically charged that it turns violent.

In May 2008, after years of simmering tensions, this manifested in the first bout of xenophobic violence. More than 60 people lost their lives. Hundreds fled their homes and many have not returned. In April 2015, similar violence erupted — more lives lost, more homes destroyed and many more displaced.

In the years between 2008 and 2015 and since, less widespread violence towards foreigners continued. The source of the tensions never really eased long enough to be fully forgotten.

Instrumentalising the existing negative perceptions and misconceptions about migrants and characterising them as threats to national security and the economy are problematic.

Enter the DA. With a fiery mayor in Johannesburg who infamously overstates the number of undocumented migrants in the city and repeatedly calls for “illegal migrants to leave [his] city”, the DA has identified “illegal immigration” as a priority policy; a campaigning tool it hopes will help win elections in 2019. Supposedly, the strategy has worked before.

Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba campaigned for office with a promise to “clean up” the city of “illegal foreigners”. His stance — regarded as specifically against African migrants — has been roundly criticised by political commentators, but seems to resonate with communities in the inner city and in townships. It comes as little surprise, then, that the DA’s recently launched policy reflects the stance Mashaba has taken and pushed in Johannesburg. 

Speaking at the launch of the controversial policy, Mashaba’s counterpart in Tshwane, Solly Msimanga, noted that it was being adopted because “the ANC has failed to secure our borders … to a point where it actively contributes to illegal immigration”. Msimanga is in the running for the Gauteng premiership and knows what traction this could get the party and him personally.

The DA argues that the policy is desperately needed, and once the “illegal immigration” that is a result of “porous borders” and an ineffective department  of home affairs is dealt with, a number of other linked issues will be as well. It says undocumented immigrants are an added burden to the state and are responsible for increased crime, unemployment and service disruption statistics.

Among other things, the DA’s shadow home affairs minister, Haniff Hoosen, claims that “the employment of illegal and undocumented immigrants has a direct impact on job creation”. The thrust of his argument is that foreigners are partly responsible for the high unemployment rate among South Africans. 

However, this view is not supported by research or evidence. The number of undocumented migrants is regularly inflated by politicians to make their presence seem like a big problem when the most reliable estimate is that there are no more than 2-million undocumented migrants in SA.

While a significant number, the supposed effect on unemployment is not. Research shows that in many instances migrants (documented and undocumented) actually contribute more to job creation in small enterprises and the informal sector. In addition, in the industries that employ most immigrants, they tend to do the work South Africans choose not to. 

In June the World Bank released a report that revealed that immigration has a net positive benefit for SA. The report, which covers mixed migration, forced displacement and job outcomes in SA, shows a direct positive effect on local employment and wages. Although unemployment is lower among foreign nationals than locals in SA, for every immigrant employed in the country two jobs are created for locals. Also, immigrants contribute to the economy by paying taxes on their earnings, renting business and personal property, and providing cheaper goods and services to the community. These are contributions the country desperately needs.

Of course, this is not to suggest that SA should ignore migration. It is an important issue and effective border management is key for the country and region. However, the way it is amplified by laying blame on African foreigners (and those allegedly letting the foreigners in) causes more harm than good. SA does face high levels of unemployment, inequality and inadequate provision of services, but this does not justify a heavy-handed security-based approach to inward migration.

Instrumentalising the existing negative perceptions and misconceptions about migrants and characterising them as threats to national security and the economy are problematic. The nationalist sentiments that promote an “us” versus “them” dynamic simply serve to further politicise migration.

SA is already reinforcing its borders and working to remove “aliens” and “undesirable migrants”. The country’s “detain and deport” policy is not new. However, benefit derived is minimal, and often comes at the expense of human rights. This approach is costly and inefficient as a means of deterring undocumented migration. For example, building one processing centre can cost close to R300m, and this does not include finding such migrants or the cost of deportation or repatriation.

Yet politicians across the political divide continue to justify it. Migrants are blamed for the government’s inability to reduce poverty and unemployment and provide adequate services to the population. Whether conveyed by the ANC, the DA or less significant — yet vocal — parties such as Mosiuoa Lekota’s Cope, this message resonates with voters, many of whom are poor, unemployed and not receiving the service delivery they expect from the state. This scapegoating buys politicians time and earns them political currency, allowing them to direct attention away from their own failings, including mismanagement, corruption or failure to tackle issues such as unemployment or access to services.

Political posturing is made easier by the absence of more reliable data on undocumented migrants in SA. Filling this “information gap” would help undo the harm caused by the pervasive misconceptions about migration and migrants. Whether politicians will accept it, use it and rework their policy positions and practices, however, is another story.

As it stands, the evidence available already refutes many of the claims made by politicians, but this has not resulted in better policies and practices. Current policies, both national and of the various parties, are based on perceptions and misconceptions rather than evidence.

The DA's new hardline policy may garner it some extra votes in 2019,  but it has in effect lowered the bar on the migration debate for all political parties. In the absence of real opposition on the migration issue — other than the DA arguing that it can do more of what the ANC is doing in securitising migration — this leaves the ANC with carte blanche to scapegoat foreigners and sell “secure border” rhetoric as a solution. 

Migration is a complex issue that politicians should not use for political gain. Their role should be to dispel myths about migration and migrants rather than fuel them. Short-term gains are great for political posturing, but dangerous for SA’s long-term mission to achieve inclusive socioeconomic development.

• Maunganidze, a strategist and legal expert, is head of special projects at the Institute for Security Studies.