IMMIGRANTS AND OUR ECONOMY: Determination and a zest for life makes many immigrants highly successful


Over the past half-century, the face of South African immigrants has shifted dramatically and concerns have been voiced about their social and economic impacts – often resulting in a familiar fear, Xenophobia, among local citizens who often attack these ‘foreigners’ and their businesses.

About 2.2 million foreign nationals, 2% of South Africa’s population, call this country home revealed Stats SA’s 2011 Census. Of the 55 African states, 53 have nationals residing in South Africa with Zimbabwe and Mozambique having the biggest immigrant communities, with 605 000 and 377 000 expatriates respectively.

Is this good or bad for our country?

As was violently expressed in the May 2008 xenophobic attacks which left 62 people dead, many South Africans, especially in poor communities, see the current immigration system as flawed.

The Human Sciences Research Council identified four broad causes for xenophobic violence, namely relative deprivation, specifically intense competition for jobs, commodities and housing; group processes, including psychological categorisation processes that are nationalistic rather than superordinate; South African exceptionalism, or a feeling of superiority in relation to other Africans and finally exclusive citizenship, or a form of nationalism that excludes others.

While the last three causes are purely emotional, the first, perhaps the most important, is not entirely based on fact. Many of the benefits that the South African government bestows on its citizens are not available to foreign nationals including Unemployment Insurance, RDP Housing and the free municipal water and electricity for the indigent – even the employment of foreigners is well-regulated.

So how much do foreign nationals contribute to our economy?

The real effect of skilled and unskilled immigrants on wages, jobs, public budgets and the economy - facts which are essential to a constructive debate, is currently less clear, however, and mostly dwells on individual points of view.

For farm, restaurant, construction company or factory owners, among others, immigration helps keeps business humming and elevates profits thanks to a ready source of relatively cheap labour. However, for, say local high-school dropouts seeking work, immigration hurts as immigrants take entry-level jobs at lower wages than they would accept.

Despite these viewpoints, there is no doubt that a larger pool of workers, immigrant and local, has potential to boost the national Gross Domestic Product. A bigger population also means more consumers for locally produced goods and services.

One has to look at two of the greatest cities on earth, New York and London, which were founded almost entirely on immigrants. Johannesburg, Africa’s wealthiest city, was also bare veld less than 150 years ago and was entirely founded and built-up by immigrants from Europe, America and Africa.

Past experiences

Many years ago, I was determined to spend a year experiencing all that Europe had to offer and became an immigrant as well. I sold everything I had and travelled to the UK where I found that South Africans were in high demand as workers.

My employers told me that South Africans where known as hard-workers which was very true of the South Africans that I met in Europe. In time, I realized that expatriates often shared a sense of adventure, determination and a zest for life.

Today, when I look at my friends, colleagues and business associates who have travelled from their faraway homes to live in South Africa, I find those same three characteristics in them.

One of my friends travelled from East Germany - barely escaping the erection of the Berlin Wall, in a VW Beetle through most of Africa before arriving in South Africa. Today, his business employs many South Africans and his products and services are sought after both locally and abroad. 

Most of South Africa’s Indian population can trace family history back to great-grand-parents who arrived in the country as indentured labourers, and despite being on the worst side of apartheid laws, they have thrived and contributed significantly to our economy despite being a small fraction of the total population.

Two Zimbabweans that I have worked with faced terrible hardships and much adventure before finding basic employment in South Africa. Today, they contribute to South African government revenues through taxes.

The Somalians, who face great adversity with their small ‘spaza’ shops throughout South Africa today, are being tempered into the great businessmen of the future - Chris Wiesse and Ackermans beware!

While the quiet, but hard-working, Burundians and Mozambicans are rapidly gaining positions of importance in the corporate world, who can doubt the entrepreneurial skills of the Bangladeshis, Nigerians and Lebanese.

Many foreigners appreciate the opportunities that are available to them in South Africa and will grasp them with both hands. Add this to their determination; you can understand why they are important to South Africa’s future growth.