Motsoaledi has inherited a department known for its ill-treatment and laissez-faire attitude towards the rights of immigrants. Chapter 9 institutions and non-governmental groups have had to continually fight the department to get it to better discharge its mandate.
In his first six months in office, Motsoaledi has done nothing to turn that around. Rather, he has stoked the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment — and come across as being straight-up xenophobic.
Motsoaledi’s latent xenophobia-lite did not start in his job as home affairs minister. In his last job, as health minister, he bemoaned the burden of foreigners on the public healthcare system.
His utterances earned him a rebuke from outgoing deputy public protector Kevin Malunga, who called his statements “desperate” and berated him for scapegoating foreigners when the health department failed to look at its own systemic failures.
Motsoaledi is in the portfolio that is meant to oversee the status of citizens and migrants to South Africa.
His absence during recent refugee crises outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees offices in Cape Town and Pretoria gave the impression that this government wasn’t willing to tackle that problem.
His truancy is part of a deeply entrenched rot in his department when it comes to migrant issues. Extensive corruption means those with money can buy their way into South Africa. But those who want to follow a legal route, either through immigration or by seeking asylum, are subjected to the snail-slow pace of issuing documents.
This is a xenophobic bureaucracy. It is hateful towards people from countries that helped South Africa get its freedom, and towards skilled migrants.
Where home affairs have done an excellent job has been when dealing with citizens. To that end, there has been a wholesale improvement of services at its centres in recent years. These range from technological advancements so things are processed faster, to getting major banking institutions to issue identity documents and passports.
The waiting time for documents has been reduced to a few weeks, if not days. That’s ample evidence that the system can work efficiently if there is a will for it to do so. These advancements also predate the new minister.
Despite the advancement at home affairs centres, maybe Motsoaledi needs to do some constitutional revision. The preamble of the supreme law says: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, not only people with South African identity documents.
How this country treats foreigners is a shame that echoes around the world. Responsibility for changing that starts at the top.