‘Please GO HOME and BUILD Africa’: Criminalising Immigrants in South Africa

10 Oct 2016 - 13:45

On 12 April 2015, a Whatsapp text from the Patriotic Movement, Pan Local Forum, Unemployed Workers Forum, Anti-Crime Movement and others went viral telling African foreigners in South Africa to return to their home countries. It asserted: ‘…there are signs of drug-dealing, prostitution and other criminal acts that you conduct- sometimes in cahoots with desperate locals. Your presence at this moment in our history is most destructive and destabilising to our country and our citizens. …Please GO HOME and BUILD Africa. Millions will die if you don’t. This we can guarantee’.

This message came to our attention from a local civil society organisation (CSO), the Adonis Musati Project (AMP), based in Cape Town. Many of AMP’s employees had received this text and were scared to come to work. From speaking with them, it became increasingly apparent that immigrants are subjected to violence not only by South Africans, but also by various state actors. There is a widespread perception of immigrants as criminals who break the law by illegally crossing a sovereign border and thus become ‘illegal foreigners’.


Recently, we have documented the illicit market in immigrant documents that operates in Cape Town. It is characterised by a blurring of licit and illicit documents rooted in the legal ambiguity of foreign nationals, and their ability to gain and maintain legal status. South Africans often refer to African immigrants as ‘refugees’ whether they have achieved this status or not. Legally, the term refugee refers to someone lawfully present in South Africa who is fleeing political or social persecution in his/her home country. A person applies for an asylum seeker permit (Section 22 permits) that can be renewed various times before the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) makes an actual refugee status determination and the person receives a Section 24 permit. In this context, refugees become conflated with economic migrants. The South African Constitution and South Africans, more generally, do not consistently differentiate the legal status among immigrants for a range of everyday purposes ranging from health access to informal labor.


This ambiguity has facilitated efforts of the African National Congress (ANC) and specifically King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu and others to push a nativist agenda among impoverished South Africans. Although this is neither surprising nor particularly novel, the way that immigrants have been criminalised by being compelled to purchase immigrant documents through corrupt DHA officials, by criminal raids, and by illegal detentions suggests the emergence of a set of techniques of governance in the global south. By viewing African immigrants and the subgroup of refugees (and asylum seekers) as different and criminal, some government functionaries foster inhumane distinctions and illegal practices.

The paper elucidates these techniques of governance. To read the full article, click here. For a PDF version of the article, please click on the image below.

Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp, Honorary Research Associate, Centre of Criminology, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa and Professor, Sonoma State University, California, USA Mark Shaw, Professor and NRF Research Chair, Centre of Criminology, Faculty of Law, UCT.