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Migrants and urban rights: politics of xenophobia in South African cities1

Brij Maharaj


Ces dernières années, des réflexions critiques émanant d’intellectuels ont émergé sur la question du droit à la ville et sur la façon dont ce droit peut s’exprimer. Comme les discours concernant les droits prennent de plus en plus d’importance, les groupes de population, tels les migrants, déjà exclus de la participation à la vie sociale, économique et politique de la ville, s’affirment de plus en plus et deviennent très exigeants sur la question de leur intégration. Dans le processus de franchissement des frontières comme dans celui de la définition et de la revendication des droits, des luttes sociales et politiques existent sur l'appropriation des espaces par les migrants. La citoyenneté n'est pas toujours automatique et, inévitablement, des discriminations raciales, ethniques ou encore religieuses apparaissent. Cet article examine les épreuves et les tribulations de migrants internationaux dans la municipalité de eThekwini (néotoponyme de Durban). Il fait valoir qu’en raison de leur situation illégale, les migrants à Durban sont soumis à des niveaux élevés d'exploitation, subissent la xénophobie et mènent une existence précaire. A Durban, l'autorité locale ne s’est pas encore engagée de manière constructive pour résoudre les problèmes des migrants et des réfugiés, et la réponse politique est allée d'une négligence bénigne à une hostilité active. La quasi totalité des principaux textes politiques émanant de la municipalité d’eThekwini ne font aucune référence aux migrants. Ceux-ci survivent ainsi grâce au soutien des organisations religieuses, des ONG et des réseaux informels. Toute discussion sur les droits de l'homme et sur l’occupation de l'espace soulève inévitablement des questions d'éthique, de moralité et de justice sociale. L'expérience des migrants à Durban et dans d'autres lieux d'Afrique du Sud accrédite l’idée que la question des droits de l'homme n’est envisagée que d’un point de vue purement rhétorique et qu’elle révèle un manque de volonté politique pour la rendre opérationnelle en termes d’avancées réelles.

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 ‘By 2020, eThekwini Municipality will enjoy the reputation of being Africa’s most caring and liveable city, where all citizens live in harmony’2

1In recent years there has been some critical intellectual reflections about who has rights to the city, and how such rights are realised (Blomley and Pratt, 2001; Mitchell, 2003). There is clearly a geographical dimension to rights. In the process of defining and claiming rights there are social and political struggles over the appropriation of urban spaces (Lefebre, 1974).  According to Lefebre (1996:173) “the right to the city manifests itself as a superior form of rights: rights to freedom, to individualisation and socialisation, to habitat and to inhabitat”.

2According to Mitchell (2003) the right to the city is determined by social struggles and contestations in the home and in the streets.  In other words, the right to the city is “the product of specific and social contests, in specific places, at specific times” (Mitchell, 2003:42). Zukin (1995:7) has argued that while urban development is determined by how “people combine the traditional economic factors of land, labour and capital … it also depends on how they manipulate symbolic languages of exclusion and entitlement”. This is because rights and associated struggles are often exercised in space, and are sometimes related to locational conflicts (Blomley and Pratt, 2001; Mitchell, 2003).

3Furthermore, “the city is both a territory and a living space in which values of human dignity, tolerance, peace, inclusion and equality must be promoted among citizens”.3   ‘The right to the city’ presents a platform for the enunciation of a “‘new generation’ of rights that reconfigure universal human rights on a municipal level.  In doing so, cities are empowered alongside states in promoting, protecting and ensuring the realisation of human rights while civil society, and those who actually use urban spaces, best determine how to shape and define it” (Koenig, 2006:3). There is view that in order to realise its “potential as a scholarly discipline examining the human condition, geography needs to focus on human rights … Likewise, the study of human rights … needs the nuanced sensitivity of geography” (Honey, 2004:732).

4In the new millennium there has been a more explicit interest in the mobility of migrants and their human rights, the majority of whom gravitate towards cities, and often cross national borders. For many people, crossing a border can symbolise hope and opportunity and an escape from tyranny and hopelessness. The movement of people across national borders is viewed as a “global challenge for the 21st century”(Martin and Widgren, 2002:3). The borders that people cross include the physical, political, cultural, economic and social (Stephen, 2007). Borders represent material locations that reflect historical, cultural and political specificities, and can be simultaneously  inclusive and exclusive. In many respects “borders breed uneven geographies of power and status” (Hyndman, 2000:1).  

5In the process of crossing borders and defining and claiming rights, there are social and political struggles over the appropriation of migrant spaces. Citizenship is not always automatic, and inevitably there is race, ethnic or religious discrimination. According to Balbo and Tuts (2005:339) the ‘rights to the city’ refers to the right for everyone, including international migrants, to have access to the benefits the city offers based on the principles of solidarity, freedom, equity, dignity and social justice, irrespective of nationality, race, gender and religion”.

6In keeping with international progressive trends, the new post-apartheid South Africa is a rights based constitutional democracy. The South African Constitution recognizes first, second and third generation rights – civic and political; social and economic; and environmental rights, respectively (Olivier, 2002). Social and economic rights are constitutionally enshrined: “Everyone has the right to … adequate housing … health care services …sufficient food and water … social security … (and) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being … The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights” (Republic of South Africa, 1996). It was envisaged that these rights would be largely realised at the local or municipal level.

7As the rights based discourse gains momentum, groups that have been previously excluded from participating in the social, economic and political life of the city, for example, migrants, are becoming more assertive and demanding inclusion. Migration debates are generally influenced by national governments and international agencies (e.g. UN). There is little or no evidence of local government input in these debates, although this sector is expected to respond to the human influx (Crush, 2006; Balbo and Marconi, 2005). According to Koenig (2006:3) the ‘right to the city’ approach presents an appropriate “starting point for the articulation of a ‘new generation’ of rights that reconfigure universal human rights on a municipal level.  In doing so, cities are empowered alongside states in promoting, protecting and ensuring the realisation of human rights while civil society, and those who actually use urban spaces, best determine how to shape and define it”.

8In South Africa, for example, basic services required by migrants such as shelter, water and sanitation are provided by local government. Section 151 (1) of the Constitution revealed that the functions of local government included “the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner” and to promote “social and economic development”. More specifically, a local authority had to “structure and manage its administration and budgeting and planning processes to give priority to the basic needs of the community, and to promote the social and economic development of the community” (Section 153).  

9This paper examines the trials and tribulations of international migrants in the eThekwini municipality (or Durban). The paper argues that as a result of their illegal status migrants in Durban were subject to high levels of exploitation, and they led a tenuous existence.   A key contention in this paper is that in Durban the local authority has yet to engage constructively in addressing the problems of migrants and refugees, and the policy response has ranged from one of benign neglect to active hostility. Almost all the major policy documents of the eThekwini local authority make no reference to migrants.  Migrants survive through support from religious organisations, NGOs and informal networks. The experience of migrants in Durban and other parts of South Africa gives credence to the view that human rights operate at the rhetorical level and that there is an inability to translate them into tangible benefits.

1. ‘Alien Invasion’ in Durban

10Issues relating to illegal immigrants in the Durban region first came to the fore in the late 1980s. In 1988 newspapers highlighted the human influx from Mozambique with headlines reading 'Durban a haven for illegal immigrants', 'Flood of Aliens' and 'Refugee Crisis'.  According to newspaper estimates there were about 100 000 illegal migrants in the Durban area in October 1988. Although the police disputed these figures, they agreed that they were facing a 'king‑size problem' (Daily News, 8/10/88). Given its covert nature, estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in South African cities were exaggerated and seriously flawed, and the accuracy of figures routinely quoted by politicians and the police have been questioned (Crush, 1997).

11In keeping with the national trend, the concerns about illegal immigrants reached greater heights in the 1990s. According to Home Affairs Regional Representative in Durban, Mr Smuts, the problem of illegal immigrants was very serious in Durban because of the harbour and international airport in the city. Some immigrants came with a visa, but this had a time limit, and upon expiry they did not renew it and stayed on in the country.

12A new police division, the Illegal Alien Tracing Unit (there were fourteen such units in the country) was established in November 1994 in order to address the problem in Durban. The task of the Unit was to detect corruption, identify fraudulent documents, take action against employers and persons assisting foreigners, and to identify and apprehend illegal immigrants. In its first week of operation the unit arrested illegal immigrants from Libya, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda,Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique (Daily News, 7/11/94).  Between November 1994 and February 1995 the police tracing unit arrested 518 illegal immigrants (Natal on Saturday, 18/3/95). It cost the South African taxpayer 46 rands a day to keep an illegal immigrant in prison. In 1994 it cost the taxpayer 400 000 rands for the repatriation of illegal immigrants from Durban (Sunday Tribune, 12/3/95).

13In 1999 a report by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on the arrest and detention of migrants revealed that in many instances those arrested and held at the Lindela Deportation Centre were subjected to violations of their basic rights.

2. Economic Refugees, Competition, Exploitation and Xenophobia

14Different studies in Durban suggest that the illegal immigrants were 'economic refugees' (Maharaj and Rajkumar, 1997; Maharaj and Moodley, 2000; Hunter and Skinner, 2003). The main reason for leaving their home country was unemployment. The influx of foreigners could be regarded as a form of 'forced ecomigration' which is "defined as a type of migration that is propelled by economic decline and environmental degradation" (Wood, 1994:617). While commonly associated with those fleeing political persecution in terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, in recent years there has been increasing realisation that those escaping from poverty and destitution could be called 'economic refugees'. Consequently, in recent years the distinction between undocumented migrants and refugees has become blurred (Harris, 1995; Sassen, 1996).  

15Most migrants came to Durban and South Africa to escape the poverty and destitution in their own countries, as well as civil wars and political instability. A key concern is the poverty, violence and underdevelopment that engulf many African countries. According to the World Bank the countries surrounding South Africa, with the exception of Namibia and Botswana, are among the poorest in the world (World Bank, 1999).  

16Often viewed as a source of cheap labour by some employers, the migrants have been accused of stealing the jobs of South Africans, in an economy which had a high unemployment rate (about 40 percent). As a result of their illegal status migrants were subject to high levels of exploitation and they led a tenuous existence.  In addition to lower wages, they were also deprived of benefits like pensions and medical aid.  They did not belong to trade unions, hence they received no protection from exploitation and were often summarily dismissed. Reitzes (1994:9) describes the migrants as a 'marginalised underclass who are easily open to abuse'.

17The view that the migrants are parasites leads to the development of xenophobia, and they have increasingly become the targets of violence. Xenophobia is rife in the townships, where the migrants are referred to as kwerekwere (disparaging word for African immigrant).  It has been argued that xenophobia thrives when there is competition for employment and social problems increase: illegal immigrants "become tempting scapegoats for alienated citizens" (Wood, 1994:625). Moving beyond economic and material explanations, Bouillon (1998:23-24) has suggested that "immigrants tend to interpret a culturally driven hostility among black South Africans ... driven by the sight of the foreign and the culturally unknown"..

18There was also evidence that media reports on foreigners tend to be biased, and foster xenophobia. The press plays a major role in influencing xenophobic mindsets, often “portraying migrants as ‘stealing our jobs’ or ‘scrounging off the taxpayer’… especially in times of recession” (Human Development Report, 2009:v). A good example of anti-foreigner sentiment in Durban is the following article in the Daily News (10/10/98) associated immigrants with the ‘flotsam and jetsam’ of Africa and linked them with the spread disease and crime, a discourse that persisted throughout the 1990s:

Estimates that there are as many as 100 000 illegal immigrants in the Durban area bring to our doorstep the realities of Africa ‑ a continent in social and political turmoil. The vast human tide threatens to burst the seams of already overflowing squatter camps on the city's fringe, straining resources which are already inadequate for the rapidly growing local population.  Endemic social problems ‑ disease, unemployment, crime, infant mortality, mass hunger ‑ are certain to mount in the years to come.

3. Migrants, Crime and Violence

19In the early 1990s police estimates suggested that 14 percent of general crimes in Durban involved migrants. However, 1the police and politicians often associated migrants with criminal activities without providing evidence to support this contention. Given the high levels of prejudice, there was a failure to recognise that migrants have also been victims of violence and crime. National surveys have suggested that “migrants are disproportionately the victims of crime, made worse by inadequate redress in law and lack of protection by the police” (McDonald, Mashike and Golden, 1999:19).

20An area of direct conflict and confrontation between the locals and foreigners has been in the informal sector, particularly hawking.  Given their vulnerable status, most migrants start off in the informal sector, often selling similar goods as locals. Hunter and Skinner (2003:307) have argued that in Durban “the main competition between local and foreign traders is over space to operate … foreign traders involved in service activities seem to be doing work that South African traders are not carrying out, and even those in retail activities, such as those selling clothes, are servicing different market segments”. The study of street traders in Durban revealed that the majority also sourced their goods from local suppliers and thereby created job opportunities for South Africans, in addition to employing South Africans in their enterprises.  The major obstacles identified by foreign street traders in Durban include lack of economic recognition, harassment by the police, and inadequate infrastructure (Hunter and Skinner, 2003).

21Foreign hawkers believed that they played a key role in developing this sector, and locals were now trying to force them out and appropriate the fruits of their labour.  A successful Nigerian trader described the situation as follows:

At first, we were very poor, but then people noticed that we were making money.  We were progressing and having cars and such things.  The local people started using our techniques, and many people wanted to become traders.  We developed this thing, and now the local people want to kick us out.  They say that the influx of foreigners is taking their jobs, but we taught them how to do business ... (Human Rights Watch, 1998:2).

22The most serious was the outbreak of violence in May 2008 which started in the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg and subsequently spread to major informal settlements in the country for almost two weeks.  At least 62 people lost their lives (including 21 South Africans) and about 100 0000 foreigners were displaced (International Organisation for Migration, 2009). Many reasons have been advanced for violence against foreigners. In Durban hundreds of undocumented migrants were displaced from informal settlements around the city and sought refuge at churches and police stations.

23A study conducted by the Human Science Research Council (HSRC, 2008:6) advanced four reasons for the outbreak and spread of xenophobic violence in May 2008:

  1. Frustration over the insufficient pace of service delivery and consultation in general, and over housing provision and administration in particular;

  2. Ineffective communication and/or engagement with local citizenry around the violence and its underlying causes;

  3. Perceived corruption and impropriety of government officials, especially in the police service and the Department of Home Affairs; and

  4. Foreign nationals perceived to arrive in the country with cash, skills and tolerant of low wages and hard work.

24Concerns about service delivery, housing provision and engagement with communities fell within the realm of local government.

4. Local Responses: Inertia and Benign Neglect

25In June 2001 the eThekwini local authority was accused of being xenophobic by the International Refugee Service after permission to build a hostel for refugees in the city centre was refused.  The reason for the refusal was that the construction of the hostel would lead to the “decline and degradation of the area, to the detriment of the commercial and residential activities” (Leeman, 2001:4).

26In July 2001 the eThekwini local authority and the South African Human Rights Commission convened a workshop on racism and xenophobia.  There was some concern that while the workshop focused on racism, xenophobia was ignored. Also, the voices of migrants were not heard.  Reverend Barney Pityana, Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission conceded that the problem of xenophobia was being ignored: “I actually doubt that many people even know what it means, and that is the real reason why they chose to ignore that the problem exists” (Independent Online, 20/7/01). The City Manager, Dr Michael Sutcliffe, conceded that “Durban – along with other South African cities – were ‘generally quite xenophobic’ towards other Africans, and eThekwini needed to pay much more attention to the issue” (Carnie, 2006:4).

27Public officials and politicians often made statements that fuelled xenophobia and anti-foreigner sentiment. For example, in August 2001 King Goodwill Zwelithini made a comment in Durban in which he stated that foreigners “contributed to poverty and unemployment in South Africa by ‘taking our jobs’” (Kearney, 2001:1).

28In eThekwini there have been questions about whether:

  1. the council would involve migrants in its development planning, or whether they are viewed as an ‘unproductive burden’;

  2. the extent to which problems was migrants was an anathema in the council’s policy agenda;

  3. was it possible for the municipality to conscientise politicians and bureaucrats about the problems experienced by migrants, and their contribution to the local economy (Ballard, 2004:108).

29The eThekwini response to the issue of foreign migrants has ranged from one of benign neglect to active hostility. Consequently, “foreign migrants are an irritant to be ignored and excluded from developmental plants of the local state and can therefore be marginalised” (Vawda, 2004:218).  Migrants were of the view that the Durban local authority was insensitive to the problems being experienced by migrants.  An official from the International Refugee Service made the following observations:

Refugees faced the greatest risks by moving away from their homes.  They seek refuge and understanding and instead in this country we see people building up barriers. I live in Albany Grove in the city centre where a shelter has been set up for refugees. The residents there have been fighting us all the way, blaming us for the degradation of their homes, trying to push us out of the only homes we have.  Early this year we approached them (Durban Metro) to build a shelter in your city centre. They refused. Last month we celebrated World Refugee Day, but did this Metro of yours do anything to highlight our plight? Do they do their best to disseminate information that will end the myth that the refugee is the enemy of its people? I don’t think so (Independent Online, 20/7/01).

30In responding to the outbreak of xenophobic violence in the city in May 2008, the Mayor of Durban, Obed Mlaba, noted with grave concern the recent attacks on foreign national’s in parts of the country:

The eThekwini municipality wishes to reiterate our unequivocal condemnation of such xenophobic acts. These attacks go against our human rights culture and weaken our campaigns to build a global community that is free from poverty and oppression. We call on people to take a firm stand against such violent acts and treat them as hate crimes. Such acts can only take society backwards and open the wounds of racism and intolerance against which so many of our people fought. We call on all South Africans to spare no effort in speaking out against acts of xenophobia in any form.4

31However, there was concern that the response of the Municipality was minimal, with the provision of emergency assistance, and the focus was on repatriation to countries of origin. About 1 200 migrants were displaced by the xenophobic violence in Durban in May 2008. About 314 were repatriated to their countries, and 404 were housed in shelters in the city. The Municipality had spent about 2 million rands to assist displaced migrants (de Boer, 2008). A study conducted by Schwarer and Mwelase (2008:6) revealed that victims who sought assistance were extremely disappointed at the treatment meted out to them by the City of Durban and the Metro Police Officers who had moved them from City Hall. They had been violently removed, and several members of the group had been injured in the ensuing scuffle ... they had expected national and local government to assist them, specifically by providing ‘physical protection’. They repeatedly referred to their experience at the City Hall, and this seemed to confirm to them that xenophobia in South Africa is directly related to the way government portrays and treats foreign nationals.

32The Durban City Manager, Dr Michael Sutcliffe, argued that the foreigners were provocative and were intent on embarrassing the municipality (de Boer, 2008).

33Almost all the major policy documents of the eThekwini local authority make no reference to migrants. For example, the Draft IDP Review 2005/2006 recognises the need to provide security for vulnerable groups, which are identified as the poor, women and children.  

34The Ombudsperson’s Office is the only sector of the city’s governance structure that makes some reference to issues facing foreign migrants. The Ombudsperson identified xenophobia as one of the ‘challenges ahead’ that had to be addressed, and there was specific reference to:

  1. Violence against foreign hawkers;

  2. Violations of the rights of migrant workers;

  3. The plight and rights of refugees and asylum seekers;

  4. The conduct of police and civil servants in dealing with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants;

  5. The media coverage on refugees, asylum seekers and migrants;

  6. The role of education in combating xenophobia;

    The manner in which service units such as the Metro Police, Development and Planning Business Support, Human Resources and Communications deal with these issues.5

35This recognition of the problems of migrants is certainly laudable. However, the Ombudsperson went to great lengths to emphasise that in addressing the problems being experienced by migrants, South African citizens should not be disadvantaged:

However, in fighting xenophobia, we must be sensitive to the many South Africans whose entire livelihood depends on informal trading and who are in competition with non-South Africans who often possess better entrepreneurial skills and capitalized businesses.6

36Migrants contribute actively to the economy of the city as workers, consumers and entrepreneurs. Restricting the benefits of the city from migrants would be shortsighted as they are unlikely to vanish, given the political and socio-economic conditions that prevail on the African continent (Vawda, 2004:259-60).

37The problems facing migrants and refugees in South African cities like Durban can be divided into three categories:

  1. Legal (asylum determination, security of person, documentation);

  2. Socio-economic/social assistance (health, education, employment and shelter); and

  3. Cultural and economic integration and xenophobia (Tlou, 2004:44).

38Local authorities like the eThekwini municipality develop progressive policies that

  1. Take advantage of the social and economic opportunities offered by the presence of forced migrant in our cities;

  2. Effectively manage public perceptions that forced migrants are a threat to social and economic stability, a perception that is often unwarranted, but which itself has serious and potentially destabilizing social and economic effects;

  3. Promote the rights of refugees and asylum seekers who are, under South African law , entitled to many of the socio-economic rights accorded to the country’s won citizens;

  4. Work towards cities that are safer, more equitable, and more welcoming to all residents regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or nationality (Gotz and Landau, 2004:15).

39Notwithstanding some local and regional variations, trade unions have been largely sympathetic to the challenges facing foreign migrants.

5. Trade Union Reponses

40The response of trade unions to immigrants was ambivalent. In early September 1994 the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) threatened to hold a one day general strike in Pietermaritzburg and Durban over illegal immigrants.  Local COSATU Chairperson, Pat Bhengu, stated that the Union would not allow local workers to remain unemployed while illegal foreigners took over their jobs.  He maintained that employers preferred undocumented migrants because they were vulnerable, had no rights, could not belong to trade unions, worked longer hours, were not entitled to leave, and could not demand a living wage (Maharaj and Rajkumar, 1997).

41Nationally, in spite of the increasing xenophobia and attacks on migrants, COSATU argued that  electric fences and increased border controls would not stop people fleeing from poverty from entering South Africa, and called for a ‘regional economic development strategy’ (Maharaj and Rajkumar, 1997). On 8 February 2001, Siphiwe Mgcina COSATU spokesperson stated:

COSATU is shocked and disgusted to note that the problem of xenophobia has grown to unacceptable proportions. What angers COSATU even more is that most of the hatred is directed at the migrants of African origin. Only six years after South Africa defeated a system that was condemned by the democratic world as a crime against humanity – the apartheid system, it is regretful that white hatred and oppression of fellow black South Africans is being replaced by hatred of migrants from Africa ... The South African government spends millions of rands repatriating alleged illegal immigrants but has not managed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into South Africa. This points to the underlying socio-economic crisis within Africa and the region. Most immigrants are desperate enough to jump off moving trains, walk across the Kruger National Park, risking death rather than face the hunger in their own countries. This is the reason why COSATU has been calling for the convening of a Southern African Regional Summit between key stakeholders to discuss a regional development programme to build and revive the economies of the region and Africa. There will be no successful South African reconstruction and development when it is surrounded by a sea of poverty.7

42In the aftermath of the May 2008 violence, COSATU, National Spokesperson, Patrick Craven maintained that:

The underlying causes of xenophobia are the intolerable levels of poverty, unemployment and crime, and the shortage of housing, in poor communities. People's frustration is understandable, but there can be no excuse for placing the blame for these problems on immigrants who have been forced to flee from even worse conditions in other parts of Africa, especially Zimbabwe. The poor working-class South African and immigrant people have a common interest in fighting to improve their conditions and fighting each other will only make the problems even worse.8

43COSATU, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and several civil society organisations organised a march through the city of Durban on 17 May 2009 in order to

  1. Unite against perpetrators of xenophobia;

  2. Help victims of xenophobia (including women and children);

  3. Educate and raise consciousness of root causes (including common concerns about shortages of houses, services, and jobs); and

    Develop programmes to bridge cultural divides.9

44COSATU and the SACP also called for a “more forceful presence of government, especially at local level, in the xenophobia crisis”.10

45NGOs and especially faith-based organisations played major roles in supporting migrants.

6. Coping Strategies: NGOs and Networks

46Migrants and refugees in Durban received little support or assistance with regard to housing, employment, skills training or education. In the absence of local government welfare support, migrants depended on support from religious organisations, NGOs and informal networks. For example, the role of faith-based organisations during the May 2008 crisis was emphasised:

Churches, mosques and temples around Durban were temporary and longer-term shelters for hundreds of refugees during May and June 2008. Emmanuel Cathedral in the Warwick Triangle area housed the largest number of refugees, and was most able to provide care and resources due to its ongoing involvement in refugee service provision in the city.  Other churches became involved when refugees began arriving at their premises requesting shelter. The churches were supported to a large degree by the Red Cross but also relied heavily on their parishes for donations and resources. A number if churches did not have adequate facilities for cooking, so parishioners were called upon to prepare food at their homes and deliver it to churches (Schwarer and Mwelase, 2008:10).

47Various surveys have revealed (e.g. Maharaj and Moodley, 2000) that the majority of the illegal immigrants coming to South Africa had some sort of 'contact' in this country, either a relative or friend.  These contacts in South Africa provided housing, food and even organised some form of employment for the migrants. Vawda (2004:178) has argued “migrants’ networks should be seen as part of a process which constructs, reconstructs and appropriates different aspects of their social relations, in order to insert themselves into the local economy and society, and simultaneously retain contact with one or more places of origin.”  Many migrants maintain links back home still own houses and have bank accounts and investments. Depending on resources and distance, most migrants return home on an ‘irregular basis’.  According to Mattes, Crush and Richmond (2002:2) “in a transnational world many contemporary immigrants maintain strong and active backward linkages.  This does not mean that they are uncommitted to their country of new residence”.

48Religious organisations (churches, mosques) played an important role in help migrants adjust in Durban, as well as NGOs such as Refugee Pastoral Care (CASE, 2003).The Refugee  Pastoral Care (RPC) is a Catholic body that was established in January 2003 and functions under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Durban.  The RPC provides assistance with accommodation, food, health services, English literacy and education (CASE, 2003). In a pastoral letter intended to coincide with international refugee day, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Durban, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier appealed for a change in negative attitudes towards migrants and refugees:

We are saddened by the treatment many refugees have received in South Africa.  Some have had acid poured on their faces and bodies, others have been thrown out of moving trains and they have been forced to move around carrying permits just as black people had to do in the days of the dompas. They have been refused the scope to develop our country and its people.  The treatment they have received shows that we do not accept them as fellow human beings. This is in conflict with our tradition of Ubuntu or Botho and the dignity of the human person, especially with regard to strangers (Napier, 2001:12).

49The International Refugee Services (IRS) was established in October 2001 by concerned South Africans and refugees because there were very few organisations responding to the needs and problems faced by people in exile. The IRS is chaired by a refugee who oversees a committee of five South Africans. It is advised by a general council which comprises two members each from the different refugee groups. It provides accommodation, food, clothing and counselling (CASE, 2003).

50Many of the problems experienced by immigrants are linked to national state policies.  Official policy towards the illegal immigrants has also sometimes been confusing, incoherent and contradictory. Various policy options have been advocated to resolve the illegal immigrant issue, ranging from tighter border controls and implementation of law and order, to those that attempt to understand the problem in its regional and historical context. According to the South African Human Right’s Commission:

If a society’s respect for the basic humanity of its people can best be measured by its treatment of the most vulnerable in its midst, then the treatment of suspected illegal immigrants … offers a disturbing testament of the great distance South Africa must still travel to build a national culture of human rights (SAHRC, 1999:3-4).


51Any discussion of human rights and space inevitably raises questions of ethics, morality and social justice. The concern of progressive, critical geographers with social justice (Harvey, 1973; Smith, 1994), morality and ethics (Smith 2000), and law (Blomley, 1994), implicitly had a human rights orientation. As Blomley and Pratt (2001:163) have argued, “geography can provide some strategic leverage to … expand the meaning of property, citizenship, of who counts as ‘human.’” In the urban arena, there have been some critical reflections about who has rights to the city and who is excluded (Mitchell, 2003). This interest in human rights has been significantly influenced by the consequences of globalisation.

52Globalisation transcends territory, location, distance and borders.  Global neoliberal order demands unregulated flow of goods and services, but increasing international restrictions on the migration of people, especially from the south to the north.  Increasing inequalities and social exclusion at local, regional, national and international scales, is a hall mark of globalization (Ghai, 2001). Not surprisingly, there has been an increase in international human rights organizations to protect vulnerable migrants, the poor, the exploited, and the oppressed (Honey, 2004).

53Undocumented migration has become a potentially explosive issue in South African cities as the outbreak of xenophobic violence in May 2008 illustrated, and Durban was no exception.  As a result of their illegal status migrants in Durban were subject to high levels of xenophobia, exploitation, and conflict, and they led a tenuous existence.  Illegal immigrants were accused of taking away the jobs of locals, lowering wages, increasing crime, spreading diseases and increasing the pressure on health, welfare and other social services. Mitchell (1992:152-153) has suggested that  such contestations often reflect “conflict over the meaning and definitions of basic rights within our society – a conflict over how ‘rights’ are allocated and over who controls the process by which conflicting rights are adjudicated.” Given the competing demands for scarce resources, local authorities like the Durban municipality did not view undocumented migrants as a priority because they were not organised politically (Polzer, 2007).

54As Cohen (1991:158) has emphasised, the immigrants formed part of a 'helot class', who were basically at the mercy of "ruthless landlords or exploitative employers, cut off from the protection of the police and the courts, and excluded from the political and social benefits" of the country in which they presently lived. More recently, the Human Development Report (2009:v) has similarly contended that governments often adopt repressive migration policies, ignore economic exploitation of migrants as well as their health and safety, and fail to initiate public education programmes draw attention to the advantages associated with immigrants. The rapid migration of people across borders has raised questions about identity, citizenship and nationality. Citizenship is not always automatic, and inevitably there is race, ethnic or religious discrimination (Castles and Davidson, 2000).  

55It was evident from this paper that the eThekwini local authority has yet to engage with the problems and challenges relating to migrants. If the stigma of illegality was removed, it was possible that such migrants could contribute significantly to the local economy through the creation of employment opportunities as well as the training of local people.  From a constitutional and legislative perspective, the responsibility for addressing the needs of migrants falls on local government.  However, many of the problems experienced by immigrants are not directly related to local governments and are linked to national policies. Given the challenges of addressing the services delivery backlog of the apartheid era, local governments view of rights of “migrants as a low priority because they are not a political constituency, or because they are seen as an active threat to providing services for citizens” (Polzer, 2007:18). Hence it is necessary to proactively increase the capacity of local authorities to respond the needs of migrants in a manner which is inclusive and which would also reduce social tensions and economic exclusion (Human Development Report, 2009).

56As long as the widespread poverty and high levels of inequality prevail on the continent, South Africa will continue to attract migrants. The South African government has two options: continue with the law and order approach and ineffective policing which contributes to high levels of xenophobia. Alternatively, it could adopt a more sensitive human rights approach which takes cognisance of the creative ways in which migrants contribute to the local economy. In this regard the South African government has to muster the ‘political courage’ to boldly initiate policy reforms such as “ensuring basic rights for migrants; lowering the transaction costs of migration; finding solutions that benefit both destination communities and the migrants they receive; and mainstreaming migration into national development strategies” (Human Development Report, 2009:v).

57The experience of migrants in South African cities gives credence to the view that human rights operate at the rhetorical level and that there is an inability to translate them into tangible benefits. Some critics have suggested that the global interest in human rights symbolized a new form of neo-colonial domination, and that it was a placebo for the ills of neoliberalism. However, the counter view was that “democracy and human rights provided the only effective means to challenge inequality and to advance programmes that would promote greater social justice and more equitable development” (Molyneux and Razavi, 2003:3).  

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1 This paper draws partly from a research report entitled “International Migration – Post-Apartheid trends and local dynamics: The eThekwini Experience”, commissioned by the South African Migration Project (SAMP).

2  The Draft IDP Review 2005/2006.

3  Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, 2006, p.5 (

charte_mtl_en/media/documents/charte_droits_en.pdf (accessed 28 October 2009).

4  Source: (accessed 27/10/09).

5  (

6  ibid.

7  COSATU Statement on xenophobia, 8 February 2001 (source: (accessed: 27/10/09).

8 (accessed 28 October 2009).

9  Main issues discussed at the meeting called as a follow up to the march against xenophobia and related problems, 29 May 2009.

10  ibid.

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Brij Maharaj, « Migrants and urban rights: politics of xenophobia in South African cities », L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 8 | 2009-2, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2009, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/espacepolitique.1402

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Brij Maharaj

University of KwaZulu-Natal

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