Women Migrants In South Africa
Earlier this year a number of foreigners in South Africa were attacked by locals. AWID explores the situation of female migrants in the country.
By Kathambi Kinoti
In May and June this year, South Africa experienced a wave of attacks against foreigners in different informal or low-income settlements of the country. The attacks were characterized as xenophobic and mainly targeted people from other parts of Africa. At least fifty people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands were displaced by the violence. Businesses owned by foreigners were looted and destroyed. Jean Beukes, a women’s rights activist says that many women were displaced and left without support structures. This made them vulnerable to further violence and abuse.
High migration rates
The southern African region has high rates of migration. Over seven per cent of Namibia’s and four and half percent of Botswana’s populations are foreign-born. In the case South Africa, the percentage of foreign born population is estimated at slightly over two per cent, but in terms of real numbers, given the country’s relatively large population, it is host to the largest number of migrants in the region. Actual figures about migration into South Africa are sketchy because there are huge numbers of unregistered, undocumented migrants. It is however believed that an increasing number of migrants are women.
Some of the migrants are attracted to South Africa by the better economic opportunities that it offers as compared to their own countries, while some come as refugees or asylum seekers. There are also other reasons why people migrate such as to join family members who live in South Africa. Most migrants do not intend to settle in the country permanently.
Most studies on migration in southern Africa do not include data that is sex-disaggregated or that has gendered analyses. One exception is ‘Gender, Remittances and Development,’ published by the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW) and the South African Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). The study reveals that ‘whilst in numeric terms South Africa is an increasingly popular destination for migrants and female migrants in particular; it is also often a hostile and precarious destination for female migrants.’ Although in general, a significant number of migrants are able to find work in South Africa, according to the INSTRAW/SIIA report ‘the economic opportunities open to female migrants are more limited in scope, location and pay [and] female migrants rank as some of the most exploited of all workers in South Africa.’ Beukes says that some of the other key challenges faced by migrant women are violence, lack of safe and affordable housing and obstacles to getting papers at the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Official figures put South Africa’s unemployment rate at 25.5 per cent, with an expanded unemployment rate (those who are unemployed and having given up looking for work) of close to 40 per cent. ‘Citizenship, Violence and Xenophobia in South Africa’ is the report of a rapid response survey carried out amongst South African citizens soon after the attacks in May and June this year. The research was commissioned by the Human Sciences Research Council. Among other things it showed that:
* Illegal immigrants are perceived as threatening locals’ access to housing, business opportunities and employment. Local men also perceive foreign men as competitors for local women.
* Men appear to be more antagonistic than women towards foreigners.
* Foreigners are perceived to raise crime levels.
* Foreigners are perceived as being willing to take menial jobs for low pay regardless of their qualifications and skills, something that locals feel undermines dignity.
* Locals in informal settlements perceive that the government is insensitive to their situation.
* Although the general consensus, particularly amongst men, was that illegal immigrants should return home, they were not averse to having foreigners in South Africa if immigration policies and controls were better regulated.
* Some South Africans were also victimised during the attacks.
* There was a difference of opinion amongst South Africans within the communities where the violence took place as to whether or not it was justified.
Xenophobia not universal
According to Koni Benson, a researcher with the International Labour Research and Information Group, it is simplistic to regard the attacks against foreign Africans as representative of the perspectives of most poor South Africans. The dominant view is that the attacks are an indication of frustration and competition over resources, but she says that on the contrary, ‘while xenophobia is rampant and often played out amongst the poor in South Africa, it is also precisely some of the poorest South Africans living in shack and townships who have been the most sympathetic to the struggles of Zimbabweans worst affected by the current crisis.’ During the wave of violence, many South Africans warned their foreign neighbours of impending attacks thereby assisting them to escape. Others opened their homes to foreigners.
According to the INSTRAW/SIIA report, female migrants are careful not to congregate, since they fear xenophobia and mistreatment by authorities. This means that they usually do not form their own organizations to cater for their welfare. However a number of South African women’s rights organizations exist to offer solidarity to women migrants. Beukes says that some of these organizations assisted displaced women at crisis centres, giving them food and clothing. Some organizations have been engaged in political advocacy about the rights of refugees, the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, and during the violence against foreigners they went into advocacy against the attacks and calling for greater legal and social protection from the government.
Benson says that a group of women from different grassroots organizations that has been vocal about the situation in Zimbabwe issued a solidarity statement and said among other things that they ‘recognise the national boundary between [South Africa] and Zimbabwe as a colonial creation and just as we were welcomed into Zimbabwe during our struggle [against apartheid], we welcome Zimbabweans fighting for a free Zimbabwe into South Africa.’ She says that this kind of support by struggling South Africans is ignored by the press which continually paints the South African poor as inherently xenophobic. The reality is that many of the people who are assumed to be the most hostile are actually the ones who reach out in solidarity to African migrants.