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Immigrant entrepreneurs experience discrimination and injustice in South African townships: A call for institutional reform, inter-disciplinarity and the renewal of social work practice

Migration und Soziale Arbeit - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 4/2019 vom 15.12.2019


Globally, the number of migrants has grown rapidly, from 173 million in 2000 to an estimated 244 million in 2015 (Bartlet 2015). South Africa is a significant destination country in Africa and is host to the largest number of asylum seekers and refugees in the world (World Migration Report, 2018). In 2017, the International Organization for Migration reported that South Africa could be accommodating an estimated four million migrants, or around six per cent of its total population of 57 million (IOM 2011).
However, the number of immigrants in South Africa is debateable because of a lack of ...

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... reliable data. As Jahura (2019: 16) states, many people in Africa seem to see South Africa as a land of opportunity. However, for many immigrants, the barriers they must overcome there are enormous. In most townships, immigrants are subjected to prejudice, hatred, name-calling, discrimination and xenophobia. In some instances, the mistreatment has had fatal consequences. This occurs even though South Africa is known for its progressive constitution and is signatory to several positive legal acts and agreements related to migrants. Anti-migrant sentiment is strongest against those who set up small and medium enterprises (SMMEs) in response to the high levels of unemployment and poverty in South Africa. The unemployment rate in SA rose to 29 percent in the first quarter of 2019, up from 27.6 percent in the previous period (Statistics South Africa, 2019), while half of the population (30.4 million) lives in poverty (Statistics South Africa 2019).The main problem that arises from discriminatory and anti-migrant attitudes is the xenophobic attacks that result in gross human rights violations, the displacement of families, the destruction of business operations and negative socio-economic effects not only for the immigrants themselves, but also for the economy as a whole (Pillay 2015: 1; Wicks, 2015: 1). Recent xenophobic attacks on immigrants in South Africa are not unprecedented: in 2008, more than 1,000 immigrants were displaced and 60 deaths were reported (Consortium for Refugee and Migrants in South Africa 2013: 1; Monson/Arian 2012: 26). In 2015, sporadic attacks left many entrepreneurs traumatised by the economic losses they suffered. These attacks not only violate the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (RSA 1996), but also pose a threat to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (United Nations 2015: 28). Sustainable Development Goals 8 and 16 seek to ensure just, peaceful, and inclusive societies and to promote sustainable economic growth (United Nations 2015: 28). Hence, the xenophobic attacks on migrant entrepreneurs should be condemned by all state officials, which should also try to prevent such attacks. It is crucial to note that an attack on any person motivated by the victim’s nationality creates fear and trauma. Such xenophobic attacks on immigrant entrepreneurs represent a backward step in the quest to establish peaceful and inclusive societies. Moreover, the looting and destruction of shops owned by immigrants derails their economic activity and thus hampers South Africa’s development as an economic hub in Africa.

Although attacks like these are a global phenomenon, which have left many asylum seekers, refugees and migrants displaced, tortured and killed (Human Rights First 2011: 17), the situation in South African is a shame and an embarrassment to the whole world. The challenges that the immigrant population face there include discrimination, cultural change, harassment, isolation, language barriers, exploitation, marginalization, and exclusion from social and civic spaces (Menjivar 2016). There is an evident lack of political will to intervene decisively to protect migrants and social work practitioners remain uninvolved, thus neglecting their moral and professional responsibilities to protect the most vulnerable. Although conventionally, social work seeks to improve people’s lives, currently social work practitioners tend to leave intact society’s unfair and unjust structures (Mullaly 2007). Popple and Leighninger (2011) argue that social work practitioners should be the first line of defence against human rights violations, but in South Africa, the social work profession seems to have reached a nadir because of problems that include low morale, huge caseloads and thwarted upward social mobility (Dlamini/Sewpaul 2015). Sithole (2017) bemoans the status quo of South African social work and proposes a revitalisation of practice that would entail evolutionary and incremental movement rather than radical revolutionary change. The South African Council for Social Service Professions (SACSSP 2018) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW 2014) mandate social workers to protect human rights and advocate for policy change. Thus, we call here for a renewed focus on the social integration of migrants in South Africa. The current institutional discourse and policy responses do not engage with migration issues and do not respond appropriately to the plight of migrants, particularly when their social and economic rights are violated. Therefore, we challenge social work practitioners to be migration aware and competent because the reality is that large numbers of people are moving inside countries, as well as crossing borders between countries and continents.
It is disheartening to observe the plight of immigrants and lack of intervention when most nation-states have committed themselves to protecting human rights. South Africa is signatory to several legal instruments and protocols designed to protect people’s human, economic and political rights, including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR 1948: 1); the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR 1981: 2); the Declaration and Programme against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, (Congress 2016: 3); and has a constitution that enshrines human rights (Republic of South Africa 1996). The South African government is thus legally obliged to protect the basic rights of migrants in the country, and to ensure that they have access to the full spectrum of basic services as entrenched in these legislative protocols.
Other legislation relevant to addressing xenophobia, discrimination, and hate speech against immigrants includes the Refugee Act 130 of 1998; the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000, the Immigration Amendment Act 3 of 2007 and the Protection from Harassment Act 17 of 2011 (Department of Home Affairs 2016: 1; O’Rilley 2015: 18). In addition, violent eruptions of xenophobia in 2015 culminated in the drafting of a National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (2016-2021) (Department of Justice and Constitutional Development 2016: 7). Nevertheless, xenophobic attacks continue in various parts of country, because of poor or no policy implementation.

In support of government initiatives, several advocacy groups, NGOs and faith-based organisations (FBOs) provide material and emotional support to affected individuals and their families. These include the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Office for Southern Africa (UNHCR ROSA) and the International Organisation for Migration. However, their efforts are hampered by segmentation and a lack of coordination among the various stakeholders, and migrants continue to be discriminated and harassed.
Initiatives and activities of the UNHCR ROSA, include peace education among refugees and local communities, youth sports, and community radio programmes to promote social cohesion among refugees, asylum seekers and nationals (Misago/Freemantle/Landau 2015: 15). The UNHCR has also established the Protection Working Group that involves UN agencies, international and national NGOs, FBOs, trade unions, and businesses in identifying risk factors for xenophobia, to develop and monitor protection plans and to assist those affected by xenophobic attacks. The endless reports of violent attacks perpetrated against migrants suggest, however, that these measures are inadequate. We lay the blame squarely on the South African government for failing to coordinate the responses and facilitate the integration of migrants within the townships to improve their living conditions and overall well-being.


The researchers conducted their study in Atteridgeville, a Pretoria township in the Gauteng Province of South Africa. The study took a qualitative approach with an exploratory purpose, because the aim was to obtain deeper insights into the vulnerabilities and suffering endured by immigrant entrepreneurs (Fouché/ Delport 2011: 64) with a view to understanding the impact of xenophobic attacks on them in the townships (Kumar 2011: 11).
A phenomenological research design helped us to gain a clearer picture of the hardships and vulnerabilities immigrant entrepreneurs experience. We focused on collecting first-hand information from migrants to understand their experiences of xenophobic attacks from their own perspective, and analysed their responses searching for common themes. Thus, we were able to describe ‘what’ happened and ‘how’ the attacks affected immigrant entrepreneurs (Creswell 2013: 76). Our research design also allowed for the sharing of multiple experiences of how the attacks affected their socio-economic functioning and overall well-being (Fouché/Schurink 2011: 305). These accounts enabled us to assess types of interventions and services that are provided to affected individuals, as well as types of support services they need.
Our access to potential participants was restricted by lack of knowledge of the actual number of immigrant entrepreneurs operating SMMEs in the Atteridgeville Township, and of those who would be willing to participate in the study to share their experiences. We used non-probability snowball sampling (Strydom/ Delport 2011: 391) and recruited and collected data from a total of ten participants. This number may seem low, but because the study was qualitative in nature, we stopped collecting data when we reached data saturation. Moreover, the number is not necessarily low when we consider that Atteridgeville township has a total population of about 64,425 inhabitants (Statistics South Africa 2019).
Before we began the data collection process, those who had agreed to participate signed the consent form giving us permission to conduct and record the interviews with a digital voice recorder. We conducted one-on-one interviews in English, although for some of the participants English is not their first language. The interviews were conducted at their business premises using a semi-structured schedule. Data was analysed thematically following the spiral method outlined by Creswell (2013: 190-191), and entailed searching for themes in their responses. The University of Pretoria’s Research Ethics Committee of the Faculty of Humanities granted permission for the study to be conducted.


Biographical profile of the participants
Participants were selected because they met the selection criteria of being a migrant entrepreneur who had been exposed to xenophobia. In terms of nationality, Ethiopian immigrants were a plurality, comprising of five participants. The remaining participants were two Nigerians, two Congolese and one Burundian. Their average age was 38 years and the average time that they had lived in South Africa was seven years. All the participants had been running a SMME in the form of a spaza shop for five years or more. Spaza shops are small to medium informal grocery shops or convenience stores in the townships. These informal businesses supply basic commodities such as bread, tea, sugar, milk, grain staples, tinned foodstuffs, cool drinks, sweets, soap, cigarettes and alcohol. Most spaza-shops are unregistered and do not usually adhere to municipal by-laws for operating an enterprise in a residential area. Most of the immigrant entrepreneurs reported that they set up their SMMEs because they could not find other work due to the high unemployment rate in South Africa, and because of the prevailing myths that migrants steal jobs from locals.

Thematic Presentation

The themes that emerged from the data analysis were:

Theme 1: Reasons for migrating to South Africa
Our data revealed that political stability and economic opportunities are the main driving forces behind the influx of migrants into South Africa. Three of the ten participants reported that they fled their countries of origin because of civil wars, conflict and political instability.:

“You see from back at home, there is no peace, we left home and came here because here, there is peace. We come from far… we come here to try because [in] our country there is still fighting, we come here to try living” (38 year-old DRC national, in SA since 2010).
“We left home and came here because here there is peace. Now, we want to rest and for us to talk together [integrate]. We also want to have the same kind of life like the people of this country. We want peace. You see in my country… there is no peace and I want to live in a peaceful country” (35 year-old Burundian, in SA since 2013).

Others said they migrated because they thought that South Africa was economically developed compared with their country of origin, saying that they expected to take advantage of economic opportunities there, such as starting a small business, in order to prosper and to be financially independent:

“South Africa is one of the developed countries. That is why we come here, because we see that it is one of the rich countries. We don’t like to go to poor countries because it is not easy to survive there. We know in South Africa there are no wars, it is a country of peace. Yeah…when I came, I came with my own money to start the business because I heard that there is no work in South Africa and that it is too difficult to get some job. That is the reason I started my own business” (35 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2012).
“I do business and I see that the business is okay for me, that is the reason I sent for my brother to come here, so that when I open another branch, he can operate [it] so that I can own the old one, and he operates the new one. I have my brother here because we have to teach him how to do the business so that we can open another shop for him” (45 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2013).

Theme 2: Obstacles that immigrant entrepreneurs in South African townships encounter
Although most people migrate to South Africa for peace and better economic opportunities, their route to a country perceived to be a land of endless opportunity and possibility is marred by several challenges. Most of the participants in our study struggled to obtain refugee or asylum seeker status, and the offices of the Department of Home Affairs where they are supposed to regularise their stay in the country are inaccessible, placing a further burden on their limited finances. Without official documents, they are not allowed to operate a business. One participant explained:

“You know in South Africa, us refugees, we can’t get help very well. You see like now, I have five years in this country, but every six months and sometimes three months, I am supposed to go to Musina [in Limpopo Province], to renew my papers. To get money to go to Musina is big problem” (35 year-old Burundian, in SA since 2012).

Second, those who have asylum documents find it difficult to acquire gainful employment because of their legal situtation.. The problem is exacerbated by the high levels of unemployment; South Africa’s unemployment rate is the highest in the region. This problem not only affects immigrants, but locals as well. One participant narrated their frustrations:
“I’m supposed to feed my kids and my sister sometimes she asks me for help because she can’t get a job with asylum status. If she is going to ask for job with asylum papers, no one is going to give her the job” (40 year-old Congolese, in SA since 2008).

The participants explained that they stopped looking for jobs for fear of being accused of stealing work from locals. They elaborated that the scarcity of job opportunities fuelled attacks against them. As one participant said:

“There are no jobs in South Africa and government does not provide jobs. What we heard is that we foreigners we took jobs. They say foreigners are working and they [South Africans] are not working. That is what caused the attacks” (34 yearold Ethiopian, in SA since 2007).

In addition to the unemployment problem, immigrant entrepreneurs also reported having major difficulties accessing basic services like health care and banking. Below is an account of an immigrant who was discriminated against and denied health care services because of his nationality:

“I was going to the hospital and they put something [on] my leg. The hospital told me that after five months I will be fine and walk like before. But now it’s like nine months, I don’t walk. Then my leg is still going up and up [swelling]. When I go to the hospital, the nurse said… why don’t I go back home to my country. It is a big problem” (35 year-old Burundian, in SA since 2013).

We also found that refugees are unable to open bank accounts, which increases their vulnerability to opportunistic criminal elements. This is evident in the following account:
“You know, it is difficult because even us we do not have bank account because we are using asylum status. Even some money from the shop, they took everything. All the money is gone” (38 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2013).

Theme 3: Adverse outcomes of migrating to South Africa
Our participants revealed that they have suffered several adverse effects as a result of migrating to South Africa, including on their personal safety. Some individuals sustained physical injuries during the recent 2015 outbreak of xenophobic attacks.

“You see, when they start that thing of xenophobia and they say this shop is for foreigner…they came and beat me. Then, they took everything that was in the shop, even some clothes of mine and money. I was injured and left with nothing” (35 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2011).
“When I was working in the shop, some people came to steal my stuff. I tried to stop them and they broke my leg. Now I cannot walk properly” (35 year-old Burundian, in SA since 2013).

Although some of the refugee entrepreneurs escaped severe physical harm, the attacks left emotional scars. Some participants have suffered severe emotional trauma to the extent that they have felt like taking their own lives to end their hardship:

“I sometimes feel that I can die. Sometimes I feel like people can just cut me here [pointing to his chest] so that I can die.” (38 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2011).
“I was even thinking of taking a knife and put it to myself [pointing to the neck]. I got scared when I thought of God. If you believe in God, you can’t do that.” (38 yearold Ethiopian, in SA since 2011).

On top of this, our study revealed that the migrants have suffered rejection and social isolation. Participants reported that members of the local community shun them, calling them derogatory names. As a result, the immigrant entrepreneurs keep to themselves and socialise only with those of similar origin. Two participants explained:

“They call us amakwerekwere., [derogatory term for foreigners]. I don’t know why. I am from far. I don’t have support. I’ve come to put business here in South Africa, now the business fell down” (36 year-old Nigerian, in SA since 2012).
“We help each other, maybe if something happens, we stand up and we [keep a look out]. We call each other if something happens. Like, we say…do not go to this side, don’t work in this side, or do not open the shop today. That is how we support each other.” (29 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2010).

The empirical evidence shows that xenophobic attacks on migrant entrepreneurs have not only affected them emotionally and socially, but also have had a devastating effect on their businesses operations. Most of their businesses were either damaged, burnt down or the stocks were looted by community members and criminals. Two participants explained as follows:

“They broke into my shop two times. I had to gather everything together. The second time they broke [things] and took all my stock. They took the stuff I am selling, my TV, laptop, including the machine I used to print airtime. They stole everything. This is how we lost everything in the shop” (27 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2012).
“I think four times. Yes… I was attacked four times. The last time was very bad because I couldn’t sell again” (40 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2007).

Theme 4: Lack of services and support from government officials
Despite legislation and policies being in place in South Africa to protect immigrants against xenophobic attacks and to facilitate their integration, our research revealed that most participants did not receive any assistance or support from government officials. They reported that they had to fend for themselves during and after the xenophobic attacks. They reflected on their experiences:

“My heart doesn’t feel nice because I didn’t get any help from the government you know… There is a lot of police in South Africa and you have a lot of police patrol vehicles and everything to help somebody, [but] I didn’t get any help” (36 year-old Nigerian, in SA since 2012).
“I never get help from the government after they broke into my shop. I cannot lie to you. I never get help from government or from the police” (38 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2011).

Although the study indicates the failure of the government to assist with the integration of mi grants or to provide security to those affected by xenophobic attacks, there were instances in which police officers did respond. However, the quality of the service was poor. Inadequate police responses are the norm, a common occurrence even for local nationals. Our data clearly show that the police are not doing enough to investigate the xenophobic attacks, to arrest the perpetrators of violence against immigrants or to follow up on reported cases. Some participants shared their feelings about this:

“The police just told me to open the case. I then opened the case. They asked if I knew the people who stole from me, and I said no. They left. I never heard from them since” (38 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2011).
“After xenophobia has taken everything. after two days. the police came to check and talk. After that it is finished. We don’t get any help or anything from them” (35 year-old Burundian, in SA since 2013).
“When they come, they just come and investigate, and after that, I’ll never get any call. I’ll never hear that they are still following that case or not” (38 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2013).

Some participants alleged that they have experienced discrimination from public officials like the police and nurses.:

“Police come late. You cannot get help from the police because sometimes the police like to say: Go back to your country…, why don’t you like to go back to your country?” (40 year-old Congolese, in SA since 2008).
“At the time they came to steal. the police came and they did not help with anything. They come and go without speaking to us. The police came after the residents finished looting our shops. The one police said I am a foreigner, I must go back” (35 year-old Burundian, in SA since 2013).

Theme 5: Types of services needed by immigrant entrepreneurs in South Africa Some participants were specific about the kind of assistance they would like to receive from the government. The majority stated that they want state officials to intervene to protect them and their assets. They said that they need security and protection from attacks by community members. Their needs are encapsulated in the following comments:

“I think maybe the government can assist us, especially after something like that happened. We hope for the government to assist us with peace keepers, security officers and how to secure our shops and our lives. so that we can continue to make our business in peace” (40 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2007).
“We want protection and security. We want the police to be patrolling everywhere around those spaza shops. We want the government to delegate… to go around and check everywhere where those shops are; in Mamelodi, Atteridgeville, Mpumalanga, Hammanskraal, Jo’burg…, everywhere where those shops are. They have to provide them with security” (36 yearold Nigerian, in SA since 2012).
“We want the government … if there is an attack like this, to send the police to arrest those people who are busy taking the stuff that belongs to someone. The government has the police and soldiers. If you have any problem or crime, the police should come and arrest the people” (38 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2011).

Others preferred compensation for their losses in the form of financial assistance. Below are some of the specific requirements mentioned:

“I don’t know of any other country where the people can break the shops and take everything without suffering the consequences. Maybe if the government can pay something for us. Maybe the government give us R 50 000. My wife is not working, and I have nothing” (40 year-old Ethiopian, in SA since 2007).

Apart from physical protection from attacks and compensation or financial assistance, some participants said that education and awareness programmes targeting local na tionals about the plight of foreign nationals could minimise the anti-immigrant narratives and attitudes and thus help to prevent future xenophobic attacks:

“We want the government to approach the citizens of South Africa and tell them that we are brothers and they should not think that we are foreigners” (36 year-old Nigerian who has been in SA since 2012).
“Government should not say because we are foreigners and they do not give foreigners support. That is why citizens comes to us and say: You are foreigner. you stole my job. go back to your country. Government should let them know that we are all human beings. They should not discriminate” (40 year-old Congolese, in SA since 2008).

Other participants wanted the application process for regularisation of asylum seeker and refugee status to be improved to minimise the long queues, delays and accompanying costs. They explained:

“I was asking the government to help us. We don’t have any papers [refugee documents] and we are here five years. We need to get refugee status and maybe it will even help us to get a job…, because if you have a refugee status documents, you can get a proper job” (35 year-old Burundian, in SA since 2013).

It is clear from these accounts that migrants in South African townships get a raw deal not only from the locals, but also from representatives of the state. This is despite the South African state’s commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection human rights of all people who live in the country irrespective of their nationality.


Our study showed that political instability and fear of conflict, violence and economic hardship lead many people to leave their conflictridden and poverty-stricken countries to seek asylum in South Africa. In another study, Kalitanyi and Visser (2010) found that most people migrate to South Africa because it is seen as a country of many economic opportunities. Their results showed that 38 per cent of Nigerian immigrant entrepreneurs left their country to pursue economic opportunities.
Additionally, Kalitanyi and Visser show that 9 out of 20 (45 per cent) Senegalese entrepreneurs also migrated to South Africa to take advantage of economic opportunities, whilst another 15 per cent of migrants from other parts of Africa left their countries of origin for economic reasons. Kalitanyi and Visser (2010) further show that some came to visit friends or relatives and then never went back to their countries of origin. South Africa’s economic viability and standing in the region and Africa-wide, has made it an attractive destination for many people seeking a better life and economic prosperity.
Migration is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. Many comparatively economically dynamic countries are host to many asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants. South Africa is no exception. The influx of migrants (documented or undocumented) is our reality, which is not going to end. Therefore, migration and migrants should be considered a national priority and mainstreamed in all policy decisions and action plans.
Upon arrival in the host community, many migrants face long turnaround times to have their requests for residency permit processed by the Department of Home Affairs. The delay renders them vulnerable to exploitation by state officials and unable to obtain work permits, and impedes the process of job-seeking or otherwise participating in the economy. Laurentsyeva and Venturini (2017) argue that naturalisation can provide migrants with greater career opportunities and thus increase their income. Chinomona and Maziriri (2015: 25) argue that governments should provide a warm reception for foreigners and refugees, process their applications promptly, and offer them access to basic human rights. We contend that once the legal status of immigrants is formalised, they are in a better position to integrate and to partake in mainstream economic activities.

Naturalisation will decrease the anti-immigrant attitudes and discourses that are rife in South Africa. Locals constantly subject migrants to racism and discrimination and call them derogatory names. In a context of very high unemployment, locals accuse immigrants of stealing their jobs, thus rendering them vulnerable to xenophobic attacks. Charman and Piper (2012: 85) confirm that residents sometimes organise themselves into groups against refugees and foreigners in order to further their political and economic interests. We reiterate that such anti-immigrant acts should not be tolerated.
Public officials display similar anti-migrant attitudes and behaviours. Police officers do not investigate xenophobic attacks, do not follow up on reported matters and do not protect them against attacks by locals. Instead, they tell them to go back to their countries of origin. Similarly, O’Rilley (2015: 18) found that little is being done to protect the rights of migrants, particularly those affected by xenophobic attacks. At an official meeting, then National Police Commissioner, now Minister of Police Mr Bheki Cele characterized immigrants and refugees as “people who jump borders”, flooding the country and destroying the livelihoods of South African informal traders (Crush/Ramachandran 2014). Xenophobia statements, anti-migrant attitudes and the lack of repercussions for those who commit violence against migrants all send the wrong messages to nationals.
Nurses, too, discriminate against migrants, denying them access to health care, and Chetty and Sherefedin (2018) confirm that fewer than ten per cent of Ethiopian entrepreneurs do not consult professionals to assist them in their business and personal matters. This is also true for the entrepreneurs who participated in our study. None of them used social work services to address their family, personal and emotional problems as they did not know that such professional services exist.
The business sector is equally guilty of discriminating against immigrant entrepreneurs through denying them access to banking facilities. Fairlie (2012: 14) notes that the lack of access to credit such as start-up capital and bank loans, is by far the biggest problem for any new potential entrepreneur, and this hinders small business expansion and the employment of more people. Migrants are most likely to borrow money from relatives, informal money lenders and informal financial institutions. For migrants, their nationality is the major obstacle to accessing bank loans (South African Migration Programme 2017). Asha (2015: 303) asserts that banks should support the entrepreneurial sector because it has the potential to contribute to the growth of local economies, particularly in the previously disadvantaged townships and rural communities where the unemployment rate is high. Mokoena (2015: 103) supports this argument, observing that entrepreneurship stimulates economic growth, creates employment and alleviates poverty. Thus, efforts need to be made to educate the public and to demonstrate that integrating and supporting immigrants bring more benefits to locals than they might think.
Chetty and Sherefedin (2018: 155) and Kalitanyi and Visser (2010: 382) demonstrate that migrant entrepreneurs offer employment not only to locals, but also to unemployed migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who otherwise find it difficult to secure employment in the formal sector of the host country due to prevailing anti-migrant attitudes. The lack of protection against xenophobia and the denial of access to basic services occur despite government undertakings to protect and promote human rights in line with the Constitution and UN human rights instruments. While the Constitution declares that South Africa belongs to all who live in it irrespective of their nationality, most migrants do not enjoy the protection of their rights.
Chinomona and Maziriri (2015: 25) are critical of the government’s response to the plight of immigrants and view it as a violation of the South African Constitution, the Immigration Act No 13 of 2002 and the Refugee Act 135 of 1998, as well as the several international treaties that the government has ratified. Xenophobic attacks against migrant entrepreneurs in and around cities in South Africa are a common occurrence (South African Migration Programme 2017). As a result of the state’s complicity, migrants are exposed to physical attacks, their business enterprises are destroyed, they are not protected by the police, they endure emotional trauma, and cannot access health and therapeutic services. Locals reject and isolate them.

Charman and Piper (2012: 91) assert that state officials flout and violate legislation and policies without fear of repercussions and that this injustice should not be allowed to persist. Immigrants are entitled to protection and access to basic services, and should be compensated for the losses they incur due to xenophobia. They want government to comply with legislative commitments to ensure that human rights and social justice prevail. The South African government has a major responsibility then to ensure effective implementation of legislation and policies, to guarantee that police officials and nurses are held to account for discrimination and violating migrants rights. Discriminatory business practices should not be allowed to persist, and the general public should be educated and made aware of the plight of immigrants. The International Policy on Displaced Persons which emanates from the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), declares that immigrants and refugees should have the same rights, resources and opportunities as national citizens (Congress, 2016:3).The mammoth task of protecting the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants is the responsibility not only of the state, but also of all stakeholders in government, business and NGOs working in partnership. As the IFSW (2014) stipulates, social work practitioners should promote social change, social cohesion and empowerment and liberate marginalised people, guided by the principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities.
Therefore, we call for a collaborative and comprehensive rights-based approach to the plight of migrants. This inter-disciplinarity could involve governmental departments such as the Department of Home Affairs, the Police Service, the departments of Health, Social Development, Safety and Security, and Education, the Social Security Agency, and the business and NGO sectors. As the UCL-Lancet Commission on Migration and Health Report suggests, we need to implement a whole of government and a whole of society response to migration issues (Clark/Horton 2018; Van der Westhuizen 2015: 119) to ensure effective service delivery to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in South Africa. These people are not a burden on the country’s economy (Sebola 2011: 1067), but rather an asset because inter alia most migrant entrepreneurs contribute to South Africa’s value added tax revenues through bulk purchasing of goods from major South African wholesalers (Mokoena 2015: 109). In addition, as Fakoti (2016: 100) found, refugee entrepreneurs rent shops or trading spaces from South African nationals. We argue that migrants are an asset to the local economy rather than a burden to the state as They both directly and indirectly contribute to growth, job creation, poverty alleviation and the self-sustainability of individuals and families.

Implications for policy and social work practice
The South African Council for Social Service Professionals and the National Association of Social Workers – South Africa mandates all South African social workers to advocate for the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants (Van der Westhuizen 2015: 117). Since the primary mission of social work is to enhance human well-being and to help to meet the basic needs of all people (NASW 2014; IFSW 2014), we urge social workers to engage in advocacy and policy analysis to ensure that migrants have access to basic rights. Social work practitioners have an added responsibility to examine the institutional violence that presents as discrimination and denial of access to basic services faced by migrants, and to advocate for a people-centred and human rights-based approach to service delivery. Social workers should be active in drawing attention to the socio-economic, cultural and political factors that perpetuate injustice, discrimination, xenophobia, and the violation of the human rights of immigrants. Sakamoto (2007: 530) adds that social workers have an ethical obligation to examine their roles and responsibilities, to challenge oppressive environments, and to transform the relationship between migrant service users and public service professionals.

Where appropriate, social workers should link migrants (irrespective of whether they are documented or undocumented) with key players such as lawyers, civil rights movements, and other interested stakeholders, who can provide them with legal counsel to hold the government and public servants to account. We contend that social work practitioners have an added responsibility to give a voice to vulnerable migrants who are silenced by fear, discrimination and torture. Social workers are urged to be at the centre of migrant-focused programme design and implementation to ensure that justice prevails and migrants’ rights are protected. Such programmes should include those that target locals with the aim of educating them about ubuntu and respect for diversity (Van der Westhuizen 2015: 128). Ubuntu is an African principle that embraces compassion, care and respect for diversity. Additionally, they need to focus on building social capital amongst locals and migrants to ensure that social cohesion prevails. Mafukata (2015: 33) asserts that public education of communities on the rights of documented and undocumented migrants is the most effective way forward to social, economic and political stability. Laurentsyeva and Venturini (2017) affirm that social integration can only be achieved if locals accept immigrants as members of the society. We argue from a political and structural perspective that the state has a moral responsibility to fight discrimination and injustice, and to facilitate the integration of migrants.


Migration is not a new phenomenon; it has been a social reality for a long time. Our study explored the socio-economic problems faced by immigrant entrepreneurs in Atteridgeville, a township in Pretoria. Migration has been a phenomenon for over two decades since the dawn of democracy in South Africa. What is needed here is a renewal of practice, the establishment of new structures that will condemn and hold accountable government officials who perpetrate violence against migrants. What is new, and requires focussed attention, is the dereliction of professional duties and moral obligations by social work practitioners. The continuing discrimination and attacks on migrants provide the context for all stakeholders to stop working in silos. This calls for an integrated and comprehensive approach that mainstreams migration issues in all policy-making processes. We must narrow the gap between locals and migrants, and adopt a human rights and social justice approach that endeavours to integrate refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, facilitates their access to services, and strives to build solidarity among locals and migrants. Migrants require belonging and connectedness with others to assimilate in the host country. To address the multiple challenges experienced by migrants in South African townships, we encourage the re-examination of policies and practices that perpetuate discriminatory and xenophobic narratives. This should be the key focus for government departments and public servants, including social work practitioners.


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Alina Lelope,
Dr. Poppy Masinga,