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Our labour migration problems are indicative of SA’s history of opportunistic relations between our own economic needs and the opportunistic use of the consumer and labour base in our region. Many fail to reckon with the history and SA’s present economic dominance in the region. The alarmist suggestions that regularising our labour migration framework suggests a “travel ban” on nationals from the region is equally unhelpful.

“As these natives enter the Union without passports,” read the reference to the section on labour migration in the Official Yearbook of the Union of South Africa 1940, “they are granted temporary permits, and these permits are renewable.” This passage referred to the terms of the “special” migration dispensation of “natives” from the neighbouring British protectorates (Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland) and the now Sadc region in response to labour shortages in local industry.

Labour shortages in SA then were managed through the recruitment of labour from these countries. SA produced 363,440oz of gold by 1939, up from 82,213oz in 1903. This surge in gold production responding to higher prices, led to a labour shortage that was met by workers from the region, who arrived here as a pliant labour force enabled by reduced railway rates for “this cargo” — a key element in the labour monopsony of mining and agricultural capital that gave us the Employment Bureau of Africa and the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association.

I mention the above, which arose out of scarcity of labour in the early 20th century, to underscore how it has changed the social structure of the southern African region irreversibly.

SA remains an important economic hub and employer in the region. More recently, the remittances of workers to the cash-starved economy of Zimbabwe have given lifeline to households in that country. The “special” dispensation was intended to be a temporary solution (much like the Union conventions) to what was seen as a “particular” and even “temporary” problem. It’s clear now that the solution to the issue cannot avoid the tasks of building strong regional value chains that distribute value and “regularise” demands for work in a more even fashion.

To regularise such migration is to also confront the reality of the “front” and “backdoor” migration policies that our history has bequeathed us and create a uniform framework that subverts that colonial and apartheid legacy. To do so, we need to create a framework that does not “ghettoise” African migrants but rather place them on equal footing with other migrants who after spending a particular amount of time here, qualify for more permanent forms of tenure and residence.

That the special permit has existed for a decade is not justification enough to have it continue as the “backdoor” or underground floor in a migration framework that needs to be uniform, commonly understood and equally applied in line with our approach to continental integration. This may complement our pursuit of the free movement of goods and people in our region. It has to be built on an explicitly articulated framework (within our Sadc, AU and African Continental Free Trade Area frameworks), rather than patchwork conventions, written in panic, as in the Union of SA and recent “special dispensations” responding to the immediate political and economic problems at home and in the region.

To compare an Omicron travel ban to this complex task of reforming our own approach to labour migration in a shifting context is to admit that we have also failed to build vibrant regional economies that are not asymmetrically dependent on SA because of political issues in those countries, but also importantly, late apartheid’s economic destabilisation of the region. Part of the answer has to be about distributing economic value across our region and continent.

In the context of the debates on the editorial pages of this publication, which suggest that the change in the temporary permit dispensation for Zimbabwean nationals is akin to a Boris Johnson manoeuvre, such history is important. To not recognise this is to use the genuine concerns of Africans who will be affected by these changes as cannon fodder for narrow potshots at those with whom we might disagree.

• Cawe (@aycawe), a development economist, is MD of Xesibe Holdings and hosts MetroFMTalk on Metro FM.

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