A foreign national holds a machete to protect himself after clashes broke out between a group of locals and police in Durban on April 14 2015 in ongoing violence against foreign nationals in Durban, South Africa. Hundreds of people have been displaced and forced to flee their homes after a week of xenophobic violence in the city. Picture: AFP
A foreign national holds a machete to protect himself after clashes broke out between a group of locals and police in Durban on April 14 2015 in ongoing violence against foreign nationals in Durban, South Africa. Hundreds of people have been displaced and forced to flee their homes after a week of xenophobic violence in the city. Picture: AFP

This week, the DA with much fanfare unveiled its policy on immigration, a key focus area ahead of the 2019 election, with the party saying it wants to close SA’s borders to illegal immigrants.

The DA wants to remedy porous borders by creating key entry points at border posts that “provide proper support to asylum seekers and those wanting to do business in South Africa”.

It wants to deal decisively with poor border management and weak implementation of migration policy, using research and data from a “well-capacitated” Statistics SA and other research bodies, while also “truly and meaningfully” extending constitutional rights to all who live in SA and those who visit or live legally in the country for extended periods.

The party also promises to ensure that economic migrants in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and eventually across Africa are processed and welcomed through the African Union’s Free Movement Protocol, which envisages the free movement of people throughout the continent.

Mashaba has been in a longstanding battle with the department of home affairs about illegal immigration and how it impacts on service delivery in the metro, which is the economic heart of SA.

On top of all of this, the party wants to tackle anti-immigrant sentiment in SA and foster sustainable solutions for individuals who live here undocumented, as well as fairly, efficiently and safely deport those who have entered the country illegally.

At the same time, the party  also tries to put what one would call “clear blue water” between itself and US President Donald Trump’s populist utterances on “building a wall” to keep immigrants out. The party states in its immigration plan that it “openly rejects all anti-immigrant sentiment, ‘build-a-wall’ paradigms”.

Despite the disclosure, the focus on immigration comes straight out of the populist textbook the US commander-in-chief preaches from, and is echoed by the DA’s Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, also a businessman with an affinity for promises to make things “great again”.

Mashaba has been in a longstanding battle with the department of home affairs about illegal immigration and how it impacts on service delivery in the metro, which is the economic heart of SA.

The situation escalated to such a level that the African Diaspora Forum (ADF) reported the Johannesburg mayor to the SA Human Rights Commission early in 2017 for being xenophobic after Mashaba had linked undocumented migrants to various social woes. A settlement was reached between the mayor and the ADF, but immigration in the city remains a burning point as the competency to deal with it does not lie with any municipality but with the national government.

Despite the simmering tension and occasional  outbursts of xenophobic violence that have historically not needed much fanning to get the flames of hate going, the DA has made immigration one of its top five campaigning priorities. The other focus areas in what the party calls its “agenda for change” are  corruption, crime, jobs and service delivery.

Illegal immigration can be an extremely powerful electoral issue, especially to lure what would be seen as the swing vote among black voters in SA.

It is however disingenuous for the DA to climb on the populist bandwagon and campaign on immigration if the party has not set the national government as its clear target. Far-reaching immigration reforms can  be implemented only by  the government, through the department of home affairs, which the DA rightly says should be cleaned up and investigated.

If this is merely about winning votes, then the strategy is fair enough. But it also takes the party on a route no less populist than those of the ANC and the EFF, which have promised that land will be taken without compensation, knowing that they cannot control the fire this could start if the process is not done the way the majority of South Africans envisage it to be.

Despite promises that its plans would entail stamping out anti-immigrant sentiment, the DA should take heed of the fact that the government cannot contain a xenophobic fire once it erupts — as we’ve seen clearly in Gauteng and other parts of the country in 2008 and 2015.

The death of Mozambican national Emmanuel Sithole on a Saturday in April 2015 in Alexandra township should serve as a reminder that we as South Africans - politicians included - can and should do better.

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