Pandemic Borders

“South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, COVID-19 showed it does not

Failure to address the needs of the most vulnerable will hasten the infection rate and flame the fires of xenophobia, already too well known in South Africa.

Pragna Rugunanan
2 July 2020
Students going to school in Johannesburg - South Africa, 8 June 2020
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Picture by Itumeleng English/African news Agency/RealTime Images/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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The Constitution of South Africa unequivocally states ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it’. The government declared a state of disaster on 15 March 2020 and imposed a lockdown from 20 March. Human rights groups and activists criticised the stringent measures taken by the South African government, especially in relation to migrants. One of the first measures the government undertook to combat the spread of the virus was to erect a 40km fence on the border with Zimbabwe.

The excessive cost and futile endeavour was highly criticised, especially in a country regarded as the most economically unequal in the world, and where resources could be effectively utilised. The government immediately closed 35 of its 72 ports of entry in an effort to control the spread of the virus. The threat of COVID-19 ‘migrating’ across remains high as borders in southern Africa are notoriously porous. Border closures do not mean that people stop traversing borders, it simply escalates the hidden networks that perpetuate undocumented border crossings (Rugunanan, 2016). Closing the borders goes against the idea of a borderless Africa and inclusivity.

The challenges faced by irregular migrants in South Africa are exacerbated under lockdown conditions and are decidedly anti-migrant. At the start of the lockdown period, some refugee reception offices, notorious for being corrupt, were either closed or stopped receiving new asylum applications until staff received protective measures. For asylum seekers, unable to renew their existing permits, meant their bank accounts were frozen. With no access to funds, they would not be able to buy food, receive health services, and provide for basic needs. In a time of lockdown, their vulnerabilities are heightened.

Human rights groups called for a moratorium on the detention and the deportation of migrants. Repatriation centres and prison stations, prone to overcrowding, are now high-risk sites for the spread of diseases. The Scalabrini Centre criticised the government’s heavy-handed efforts and emphasised that the rights and dignity of asylum seekers and refugees needed to be upheld and protected. The Department of Home Affairs (DHA), is also subject of much criticism because of its bureaucracy and failure to implement and execute policies for asylum seekers and refugees to access their legal documents, social grants and security of stay. The DHA was slow to respond to any queries on arrangements for the arrival of asylum seekers, or measures put in place to address the needs of undocumented migrants and refugees during this period.

Police shut down immigrant-owned shops in township areas, forcing residents to travel longer distances for basic necessities

South Africa’s National Health Act guarantees everyone in South Africa, irrespective of documentation or citizenship, the right to access the public health system and to be tested. Despite this progressive legislation, undocumented migrants often fear authority and will remain hidden, rather than to seek access to public hospitals and clinics. In an article published on Africa is a Country, Jo Vearey criticises government ministers referring to South African citizens only in a time of pandemic, arguing instead for an inclusive narrative where we should be talking of all in South Africa” when considering the collective members in society.

Access to testing, healthcare and treatment for HIV and TB should be accessible to everyone, inclusive of refugees, asylum seekers, visitors and undocumented migrants, without fear of repercussion and deportation. Failure to do so will hasten the infection rate and flame the fires of xenophobia, already too well known in the South African context.

Over 66% of South Africa’s total population live in urban areas. With the growth of informal settlements, densely populated townships and overcrowded living spaces, effective social distancing becomes meaningless. With no reliable access to clean water, basic sanitation, electricity, and unemployment levels at 27,32%, these areas are a ticking time bomb for mass infections to spread.

South Africa does not have clear plans for hosting refugees and asylum seekers after lockdown

While workers in the formal sector will be protected to some extent, it is the estimated that 3 million workers in the informal sector are the most vulnerable. Research on foreign migrants’ show that they make up a small percentage of the informal sector, but contribute to job creation by employing South Africans and contribute to South Africa’s tax base. The government announced that South African owned small businesses would be cushioned by a government relief package to sustain them. No mention was made of assistance to immigrant-owned businesses in the media briefing. Instead, police shut down immigrant-owned shops in township areas, forcing residents to travel longer distances for basic necessities, enhancing the spread of the virus. After much criticism, a new directive issued on 6 April allowed all spaza shops (small independent owned corner cafes’/shops owned primarily by immigrants) to re-open in township areas.

Similar to many countries, South Africa does not have clear plans for hosting refugees and asylum seekers after lockdown. Now is the time to truly embrace the call of the Constitution of South Africa. The government should strengthen access to health services, provide for routine medical check-ups to ensure that vulnerable and marginalised communities are not excluded from diagnostic testing and medical care. The government should streamline its asylum application system, so that refugees and asylum seekers can enjoy their legal rights. The nationalist discourse by the government is prone to stirring xenophobic unrests; the most recent spates of intense xenophobic violence in 2008 and 2017-2019, should change into a narrative that is inclusionary and without discrimination.

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