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Xenophobia only hurts South Africa

Gretchen Wilson Jun 3, 2008

Xenophobia only hurts South Africa

Gretchen Wilson Jun 3, 2008


Renita Jablonski: There are about 8 million undocumented immigrants working in the United States. A recent study says if they were to disappear overnight, the U.S. economy would lose about $1.8 trillion in annual spending.

South Africa’s economy, too, relies on as many as 5 million foreign nationals living inside its borders. They’re often blamed for high unemployment and business competition. So when mobs attacked these foreigners last month, more than 50,000 of the migrants fled the country. As Gretchen Wilson explains from Johannesburg, this absence won’t help the economy.

Gretchen Wilson: Itai Mangwan came here from Zimbabwe three years ago. He opened a convenience store in a remote township. But when violence against immigrants flared up across the country, neighbors poured into his shop and stole everything. And then abducted his family.

Itai Mangwan: They come and grab my wife and my child. My child is 2 years old. They go with them. I don’t know where are they now.

Mangwan can’t get answers from the police. And he’s terrified.

Mangwan: I’m sleeping in the street. Here is my blanket and my pillow. I don’t have food to eat. I just want my family back so that I can go back to Zimbabwe.

If he goes, he’ll be among tens of thousands of migrants who’ve returned home to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Nigeria.

South Africa’s economy is the biggest in the region. Still, nearly 40 percent of South Africans are unemployed, and some blame foreigners for taking their jobs. But the unrest is driving away the very people that the economy needs most for its growth — entrepreneurs and skilled laborers, like electricians and road surveyors.

Loren Landau: And the South African economy continues to be highly dependent on migrant labor.

Loren Landau heads the Forced Migration Studies Program at Wits University. He says South Africa’s former apartheid system left an enormous skills gap.

Landau: So I think for business to continue to grow and of course to create more jobs, there’s a need to get those skills here.

Thirty-five percent of South Africa’s mineworkers are from other countries. At the height of the unrest, some gold mines had to shut down because their foreign workers were too afraid to show up for work. Many South Africans know this, and want immigrants to stay.

This is a march to show support for immigrants in the wake of the violence. Thousands of people carry signs that say things like “Xenophobia hurts like apartheid.” Apartheid made South Africa an international pariah and stunted the country’s economy.

In Johannesburg, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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