Nelvis Qekema

13 April 2022

In his 1968 “A Proper Sense of Priorities” speech, Martin Luther King Jr makes a strong point of principle and moral uprightness: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right”.

When the AZAPO Central Committee met two weeks ago, our conscience convinced us that it is not right to fold arms and keep a distance when there is mutually destructive violence and social displacement in the black community.  We cannot fold arms when some black people raid the homes of fellow black people and demand they produce their “passes” and burn their homes with the result that children are unable to go to school and live a living that can mould them into accomplished adults.

AZAPO cannot play safe when Elvis Nyathi, a fellow Afrikan, was attacked and burned to death for failing to produce some “pass” to prove that he was a documented Zimbabwean immigrant in South Africa.  Even if he did not have the papers, Nyathi did not deserve to die, let alone the barbaric manner through which he was killed. His children and wife do not deserve to be respectively fatherless and spouseless merely because he did not have a “pass” in his hands.

It is against this background that the AZAPO Central Committee met two weeks ago and took a decision to meet the Operation Dudula organisation and engage them on their methods of dealing with the challenge of the “undocumented immigrants” in South Africa.  AZAPO has as a matter of principle avoided playing to the public gallery by spewing populist rhetoric and folding arms while destabilisation of grave proportions is unfolding in the black community.

There is historical evidence that AZAPO is never scared to swim against the current.  At the height of apartheid repression in the mid-eighties, AZAPO stood firm against the reactionary slogan “Liberation Now, Education Later.  We also made it clear that under no circumstances would schools and libraries in the villages and townships be burned.

AZAPO also opposed the barbaric necklace – the form of murder by placing a burning tyre around the neck of the victim – which was said to be effective methods of killing “apartheid spies”. The term “spy” soon assumed a wider application that implicated those who held a different political view from the mainstream one in the black community.

When everybody was excited about the so-called miracle political transition of 1994, AZAPO was alone in calling for the boycott of the elections because we understood that those elections were not about the transfer of the land and economic power from the white minority to the black majority.  Almost three decades later, there is general acceptance that AZAPO was right.

As a matter of fact, the birth of the Operation Dudula group came about because there was a void that needed to be filled by the government of the day. And this was not happening for a very long time. The simple truth is that the government has failed the people with regard to dealing with the immigration challenges in the country. There are millions of economic migrants who are in this country under the guise of seeking political asylum. Only a tiny minority of the total number of the people who are seeking political asylum qualify to be granted refugee status. A considerable number are economic migrants who know how to exploit the gaps in the country’s immigration laws with the objective to eke out a living in a relatively better industrialised economy in Africa.

Though patriotism sometimes finds black people uttering terms like “our economy” when it is obvious that the South African economy operates to the exclusive racist interests of white people.  Black people have almost next to nothing income and wealth to be patriotic about.  As the face of unemployment, poverty, homelessness and landlessness, the black person has very little about which to be proud.

Thus, many of the economic immigrants find themselves competing for limited economic opportunities in the poorer areas in the townships and in the villages.  Some of them open up spaza shops and other small businesses that compete with the efforts of the locals to escape poverty. Because quite a number of them are undocumented, the economic migrants are highly sought after by the employers who prefer black workers who would not join labour unions.  You cannot avoid being documented and still be prepared to be documented by a trade union.  Little wonder that the farms and other sectors such as hospitality industries are dominated by “foreign nationals”, many of whom are undocumented.  Given the rising unemployment, which is fast approaching 50%, tensions are bound to rise between “foreign nationals” and the locals, many of whom hear the brunt of unemployment.

Though crime is not an exclusive preserve of black people, it ought to be expected that the people defined as economic immigrants would no doubt find crime an easy way out of their economic miseries.  That would not be what some of the economically depressed locals would not be doing.  But an undocumented person would be more elusive and difficult to pin down than a documented one.  Also, planning and service delivery becomes a nightmare for the government when millions of people are undocumented.  The infrastructure also collapses under the pressure of unexpected and unpredictable numbers.

Meanwhile, the South African borders are as porous as sieves.  People from the neighbouring countries come in and out the country as they please.  It is dangerous for the economic stability and internal security of a country not to be able to account for the people inside its borders.  It becomes difficult to have a definite entity called a citizenry under these conditions.  Voting, voters’ rolls, and elections can be a challenge that could sometimes threaten to undermine the sovereignty of a country.  And we have evidence of how the phenomenon of the mercenary soldier has become so fashionable as we have seen in foreign character of the invasive conflict in Mozambique.

Granted this background, a populist movement seen to be fighting to advance the interests of locals was bound to emerge in South Africa.  It is through this opening that Operation Dudula came into being. It is a movement rooted in the townships, and it is pretending to do what the government has so far failed to do.  That is to police the undocumented immigrant.  Unfortunately, this is done on the basis of a narrow and chauvinistic nationalism that is essentially anti-black and playing into the hands of racism.  The exaggerated amounts of self-hatred in display are unbelievable.

AZAPO will tell Operation Dudula that their efforts to get the immigration problem addressed will lose moral high ground status if they engage in acts of violence against fellow Afrikans.  We will listen to them so that we could constructively engage each other in order to ensure that we find long term solutions to the problem of immigration.

One of the far-reaching proposals we are considering putting on the table is to engage the Home Affairs Department to tighten immigration laws to limit the free movement of people claiming to be asylum seekers. The current regime where asylum seekers have free movement in the country is the biggest weakness in the management of “so-called refugees”. The reality of the situation is that there are millions of economic immigrants coming to South Africa from all over the continent to seek better economic prospects. They come from as far as Somalia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Nigeria and in the SADC countries such as Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. When they arrive in South Africa, all they have to do is to report to an immigration centre and indicate that they want to apply for political asylum. They know that it would take the government up to eight years to verify their status. In the meantime, they live freely in the country, they can apply for work or open a small business and live anywhere in the country.

Of course, it is a truism that the borders in Africa were drawn by the colonialists.  But that does not undo the facts that we live in the era of nation states in the context of national sovereignty and a definite citizenry.  The truth is that we have different countries on the continent. And while we should encourage economic integration, we should not pretend that there are no national borders.  Movement between countries has to be regulated and controlled to avoid the undermining of a country’s sovereignty and national self-determination.

Another issue which we have to openly talk about with those concerned about the influx of Zimbabweans is the economic meltdown in that country, which is the main driver for people to migrate to the south. The revival of the Zimbabwean economy provides a long-term solution for the citizens of that country to return to home.

Ultimately, it is impossible for the government to plan properly without knowing the number of its citizens. South Africa, like any other country, has limited resources. If the State does not get the citizenship issue right, it would never be able to build enough houses, enough schools, or enough hospitals for people who will be arriving on a daily basis.

It is unfortunate that the government has consistently showed that its ability to listen to the people is a function of their violent protests.  Our task as a revolutionary movement is to advance the aspirations of the people without hiding any difficulties. If this means engaging Operation Dudula, so be it.

Qekema is the President of AZAPO