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How immigration issues are steering South Africa’s 2024 elections

An expert discusses immigration campaign rhetoric, xenophobia, and diaspora voting.

- May 28, 2024

Today in our series on the 2024 South African elections is an interview with expert Beth Wellman, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Memphis and a research affiliate at African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand. Wellman’s research examines how migration affects electoral politics, particularly in South Africa. In this interview we talk about how immigration to South Africa is a key issue in the election – and how South Africans in the diaspora vote from abroad.

Kim Yi Dionne: Immigration seems to be a key issue in this election. Can you explain for our readers the immigration context in South Africa?

Beth Wellman: Given its political stability and relative economic prosperity, South Africa has been an attractive destination for many international migrants, especially from elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. 

South Africa has long paired a progressive refugee and asylum-seeking policy with severe restrictions on most other forms of legal migration. In the past this has resulted in an asylum system that’s completely overwhelmed by applicants. 

This was especially prominent during neighboring Zimbabwe’s crisis in the 2000s, when an estimated quarter of Zimbabwe’s population fled their home country. Most Zimbabweans went to South Africa because of its proximity (there was also a specific reprieve for Zimbabweans first issued in 2009 and extended until 2025). 

But strict immigration measures have meant police raids targeting migrant neighborhoods, predation, detentions – and promises by President Cyril Ramaphosa to further secure the border. Indeed, last year the government launched the Border Management Authority, a new enforcement agency aiming to send hundreds of new border patrolmen to stop border-crossers.

Xenophobia (i.e. anti-immigrant sentiment) has been around in South Africa for a long time. Xenophobic incidents (including attacks, evictions, and harassment) occur intermittently, with large-scale multi-sited outbreaks of violent attacks and displacement in 2008 and 2015

The 2015 violence followed comments made by the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini that foreigners were taking jobs and wealth from black South Africans and should be deported. For local politicians, immigrants have often served as a convenient scapegoat for the continued challenges – unemployment, crime, and service delivery – they have little help in solving for their constituencies.

Who are the political figures and parties focusing on immigration in this election?

The lead-up to the 2024 election has witnessed toxic rhetoric from government officials and across political parties, blaming migrants for taking jobs, accessing services, and fueling crime. As Shelley Liu noted in her interview, anti-foreigner misinformation is rampant. 

While South Africa is home to an estimated 4 million immigrants, the political focus on migrants overrunning the country has fueled popular resentment and misperceptions that grossly overestimate the number of migrants. Xenophobic sentiment has become increasingly normalized. Thus the immigration issues of border security and jobs remain politically salient across political parties.

Numerous political parties beyond the ANC are taking a hard line on immigration in South Africa in this election. ActionSA, an up-and-coming party led by former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, oversaw police raids on foreign shops when in office and invoked the hashtag #PutSouthAfricaFirst when initially launching ActionSA in 2020. The party’s current manifesto calls for mass deportation of all undocumented immigrants – a stance Mashaba calls “unapologetic.” 

It is telling that the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation’s “Elections 360,” a weekly election-related debate program airing this spring, focused on immigration and border management as its first episode. During the debate, several political parties referred to the current system as a “free for all” with the Political Alliance party repeatedly claiming that “illegal foreigners” were taking up hospital beds, jobs, and housing. The party also called for a border wall and mass removal of illegal immigrants.  

That said, one thing the major political parties have united on is condemning the anti-immigrant group Operation Dudula. In Zulu, Dudula means “to force out.” Since 2021 Operation Dudula has organized multiple protest marches against migrant workers and chased immigrants from hospitals. Last year the vigilante anti-migrant organization became an official political party in order to contest this year’s elections. But last month the Electoral Court denied Operation Dudula the ability to contest the elections. 

It will be important to watch whatever government forms after the election to see how they address both border security as well as incidents of xenophobia when they arise.

To what extent is this negative context for immigrants reflected in policies and government treatment of refugees and immigrants?

Last month, the Department of Home Affairs released the White Paper on Citizenship, Immigration, and Refugee Protection, which calls for South Africa to withdraw from all international protocols governing refugees. This includes the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention. The paper claims “South Africa does not have the resources to grant the socio-economic rights“ to refugees as mandated by the international protocols. The proposal states South Africa would eventually re-join these protocols, but with reservations limiting its responsibility towards refugees.

The white paper also calls for a complete repeal and overhaul of the three major domestic laws governing immigration and citizenship: the 1995 Citizenship Act, the 1998 Refugees Act and the Immigration Act of 2002. Numerous civil society organizations have strongly condemned the white paper, while other political parties have dismissed it as an election-timed gambit.

Flipping from immigrants at home to South Africans abroad, I’m curious about the role of South Africa’s diaspora in this election. Your articles on out-of-country voting – both focused on South Africa and examining Africa broadly – teach us about the forces shaping whether governments make diaspora voting possible. Can you share more about how diaspora voting works in South Africa? 

Since the 1994 election, the ANC’s position on diaspora voting (which South Africa calls “out-of-country voting”) has gone from supportive to opposed to reluctant. You have to remember that for decades during the liberation struggle, the ANC operated in exile. During the 1994 transitional election, the ANC fought hard to ensure South Africans all over the world who had been denied the franchise for so long could participate. And they did, in quite large numbers. 

After the return of many exiles, and a spike in white emigration from South Africa after the ANC came to power, the government abolished out-of-country voting altogether in 1998. It was a 2009 Constitutional Court case – brought forth by the four opposition parties, including the DA and Inkatha Freedom Party – that ruled any South African citizen must have a reasonable ability to vote wherever they are in the world. 

As the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) main commissioners are appointed by the ANC, they were not too happy about this ruling. During my research, one Democratic Alliance (DA) official I interviewed remarked, “The ANC have no real incentive to provide the vote to South Africans abroad given that they get a very low number of those votes.” That said, the principle of universal suffrage – enshrined in the 1996 constitution – is a particularly potent one given South Africa’s history of exclusion and disenfranchisement.

Since the 2009 election, the IEC has been mandated to organize out-of-country voting. They provide this voting access in a way that both limits costs to the state and is also somewhat cumbersome for South Africans abroad. The 2024 election is the first time that South Africans were able to register outside of the country through an IEC online portal portal. Previously, to vote abroad you had to have already registered within South Africa or register in-person at a foreign mission.

Out-of-country voting actually occurs prior to in-country voting. For the 2024 election, South Africans outside of the country voted on Saturday May 18, or on Friday May 17 in a handful of Middle Eastern foreign missions. 

To vote, South Africans go to their nearest embassy or consulate with two forms of required identification – both a South African ID and their passport. The government organizes polling stations at South Africa’s foreign missions around the world (around 120 in total). Last month, the DA won a court case involving the party’s attempt to expand polling stations to honorary consulates as well. While this system provides expansive geographic coverage to South Africans abroad, limiting polling stations to foreign missions led to extremely long queues in places like London, with thousands of South Africans from all over the United Kingdom waiting to vote.

Could the diaspora vote be pivotal in this election? Are there particular diaspora communities we should be paying attention to?

Given the challenges of out-of-country voting, the numbers of actual voters are very low, with roughly 18,000 votes in 2014 and 19,000 in 2019 (compared with ~18 million in-country votes). Out-of-country voters also only participate in the National Assembly election and their votes in the past haven’t totaled a single seat. 

Over 78,000 South Africans registered this year to vote out-of-country – more than twice the number in the prior election. By all accounts, more South Africans voted from outside of South Africa in this election than during any election since 1994.

Watching the diaspora vote, however, has been foretelling of the steady decline of the ANC. In 2014, their vote share of the out-of-country vote was 34%; in 2019, it had gone down to 11%. Meanwhile, out-of-country voters have increasingly supported the DA, from 57% of votes in 2014 to 75% of out-of-country votes in 2019. 

What I will be watching in this election is to see if any of the new parties, e.g., MK or ActionSA, has gained any traction with South Africans abroad, or if the DA will continue to dominate the out-of-country vote. I would also be curious to see how this vote breaks down geographically; for example, if South Africans voting in African or Middle Eastern foreign missions vote differently than those voting in the U.S. or Australia.