BYLINE: Saliem Fakir
There has been a lot of media coverage concerning the treatment of foreigners who have entered South Africa legally or illegally to seek a better life or escape the ravages of political conflict.
The presence of foreigners seems to generate mixed reactions from South African citizens - and foreigners have come to think of South Africans as being too xenophobic.
We read of the killings of Somalians; we hear of west Africans running Cape Town's parking meters; the government announces the recruitment of doctors and nurses from the rest of Africa, Cuba, Iran and India to fill the dearth of South African doctors willing to work in rural areas.
The private sector too, in partnership with government's Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisitions (Jipsa) programme, has begun a major search for skilled workers for different sectors of the economy, particularly in the fields of IT and engineering.
Anti-foreign sentiment in South Africa is not an acute national political issue like it is in many European countries. We do not have drumbeats of war against foreign nationals. Thankfully feelings are low-level incipient stuff and perhaps minor irritations. This should not suggest that it does not require management and vigilance in case it takes a turn for the ugly.
Sentiments are partially driven by fact, and much of it is simply prejudice, erroneous fears and hearsay. We are not about to be taken over by foreigners - especially fellow citizens from elsewhere in this continent. And, it is a moot question whether all our social ills can be attributed to the invisible doings of foreigners.
There is no state anti-immigrant policy either. The contrary is true. South African immigration laws are no different from those of many developed economies in terms of requirements for entry. And, where there is an urgency for skills we have the dexterity to make exceptions as we have seen with the implementation of Jipsa.
President Thabo Mbeki himself has never shied away from using foreign experts to provide advice on a range of areas that affect our economy, health, education and financial institutions. Including inviting foreigners to invest in prized national companies by partial or full acquisition of these companies.
This is a sign of maturity, confidence and the recognition that we must have the humility to know when to use others because it can assist our own national advancement.
The government's stance is informed by the fact that the ruling party enjoyed the hospitality and kindness of many countries when it was battling the apartheid regime. Our continued relations with these former host of the liberation movement have nurtured an embedded history around common struggles which we cannot disregard.
In a globalised economy the search for talent, ideas and networks require a great deal of flexibility, confidence and pragmatism if we are to woo foreign skills. This is not unique to South Africa - all emerging economies whose growth rates are high cannot sustain such growth rates without expertise and skills.
South Africa's own strategic presence in the world and the advancement of its own economy requires relations with non-nationals on terms that are of mutual benefit. Xenophobia is counter-productive and not realistic in today's interdependent world.
The post 1994 era and the unexpected economic harvest that we are reaping will always attract foreigners. We should be grateful for this as it places us in a rare position of advantage rather than disadvantage as many countries are competing for the same pool of talent.
The question of whether immigrants should stay or not is best assessed by the extent to which they sacrifice the right to be in their own homeland for a rooting elsewhere - a place of new beginnings and belonging.
Again, our situation is different from the attitude in Europe. …