The last fortnight has seen a disgusting display of inhumanity, targeted against foreigners living in South Africa. Whether or not they’re illegal, whether or not they’re fleeing repression in Zimbabwe, whether or not they have jobs, local scum who think they’re superior have attacked anyone who is not like them, in the most brutal fashion. Our streets resemble the worst days of apartheid, and the pogroms continue.

We should be ashamed.

That foreigners flock to South Africa is a compliment. Do we really want to be the sort of country that isn’t attractive to foreigners? Perhaps one in which the government has to fence people in? After the decades of succour foreign countries gave our liberation leaders, are we returning the favour by slaughtering them like animals?


The problem is deep. Much of it is appears to be simple tribalism, racism and xenophobia, yes. But that’s not the cause. The cause is two-fold: the failure of government to improve the lot of our own people, and a widespread misunderstanding of the economic issues raised by immigration.

Foreigners strengthen a country. Yes, there are criminals among them, who steal out of need or opportunity. But the majority — even the poor, the jobless and the refugees — on balance contribute to an economy over time. They’d have to, or they’d starve. The notion that they “steal jobs” is mistaken. They do take jobs, yes, but every new job created adds more value to the economy than it costs. They contribute to production, and to consumption, and as a result create new jobs in turn.

Many foreigners, both in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, have become successful business people. They’re often entrepreneurs who create companies (and jobs) that locals haven’t created, to supply products or services locals haven’t (or won’t) supply. Obviously, they do compete against South African workers and businesses, but if they do so successfully, one has to ask why every consumer should pay the price for a local’s inefficiency or rapaciousness. Protectionism might help the protected, but it does so at a heavy price to consumers. Is it really fair to expect our people — many of whom are themselves poor — to subsidise inefficiency in the name of nationalism?

Great countries welcome immigrantsThe most notable example of success that rests heavily on free immigration is the United States. It grew strong and prosperous on the hard work, the energy, and the entrepreneurism of immigrants. It didn’t let in only “skilled” immigrants. It recognised that free people, working for themselves in free markets, develop skills. That free people create prosperity and an economic vitality that is both deep and wide, and reaches far beyond just the immigrant communities themselves.

We demanded our freedom, and celebrated it when it was won, yet we refuse to grant others the same freedom? Why protest the pass laws, but demand that our borders be closed? Why ignore the biggest benefit of liberty: the ability to prosper without the dead hand of government holding us down?

True, immigration has its problems. Most notably, it’s a problem in welfare states. When taxpayers cough up to support people without the means to support themselves, it stands to reason that they don’t want bums arriving who leech off the system. This is the reason why modern America is no longer as welcoming as it once was, and why European countries have even bigger immigration problems. The problem isn’t immigration, it’s economic policy at home.

The obvious solution is simply not to offer foreigners any welfare beyond what the common decency of a civilised country requires. An even better solution is not to delude ourselves that a welfare state is a good idea in the first place. It sounds nice, but it is counter-productive. Let people invest their capital and spend their money as they see fit. Income is, after all, the incentive to be productive, so letting people keep their income seems smart if productivity and economic growth is what you’re after. Capitalism isn’t what makes people poor. You can’t sell stuff to poor people. What makes people poor is when free economic activity is strangled by state control. When markets are prevented from thriving unencumbered by regulation. When government discourages or even bans individuals from seeking profitable and sustainable ways to offer other people the things they need or want.

Liberation shouldn’t be a halfway measure. If liberation is to mean anything, it should carry both its political and economic meaning. Letting free people engage in free markets is how you create a wealthy, job-creating economy — something our government has singularly failed to do. For all its stated intentions and campaign slogans, it has not created jobs. It has not delivered a better life for all. And that’s not because of an “implementation crisis”. It’s because of a policy crisis. It’s because it cannot deliver a better life for all, even if it wanted to. All a government can deliver is the justice and liberty that permits each of us to pursue our own better life, however we define it.

Our economic growth lags even the global average, let alone the growth of other emerging markets. Our government takes almost a third of our GDP in taxes, yet what have ordinary South Africans received for this sacrifice? Very little indeed. No wonder they’re angry.

But making scapegoats of foreigners is misdirected anger. If the government seems reluctant to say so clearly, it is only because it knows the anger should really be directed at the socialist policies, the bureaucratic incompetence and the crony corruption of the ruling ANC. It deserves a great deal of credit for liberating our people. However, as a government, the ANC has failed the people.

We should recognise that economics, job creation and prosperity is not a zero-sum game. Every participant in our economy on average produces more than he consumes. Therefore, we should welcome every participant in our economy, because their work makes all of us more prosperous. Their work delivers the services and goods that make all of us better off. A government can’t make a better life for all, but people can. Where they’re from is immaterial.

Our government has not only failed the people, but it has failed even to speak up against the oppression on our doorstep. The result? Many of the victims of Zimbabwe’s tyrant now need the safety of our country, as many of our own people once needed the safety of theirs. We should take them in. We owe it to them.

Taking our anger at government failures out on foreigners is misguided and counter-productive. It not only hurts our own prosperity and progress, but how is it different from the white redneck who went and shot himself some people in Skielik? Or the scum that degraded black staff at their university? Do we all want to be like that? How can we condemn those acts, or blame people for calling us racists and violent third-world savages, when all they see on TV is racism and violent third-world savagery?

We, of all people, should welcome immigrants. We should thank them for thinking our country worth making a new life in. We are the rainbow nation. Or aren’t we?

(First published on my own blog.)

PS. On Saturday 24 May, a march will be held in Johannesburg to protest the rising xenophobia in South Africa. Despite the participation of many confused socialists who misunderstand the economics of free immigration but instinctively realise this wave of violence is evil, this march is worth supporting. I will be there, marching for the first time since the liberation of South Africa. Join us. Meet at Marks Park, on Empire Road, near Hillbrow, at 9 am. From there, we’ll head to the Library Gardens, via the Department of Home Affairs.


  • Ivo Vegter writes and argues for fun and profit. He is a columnist, magazine journalist and apprentice model shipwright. In his spare time, he helps run a research company. He specialises in the tech and telecoms industries, but keeps a blog on politics, economics and other curiosities on the spike


Ivo Vegter

Ivo Vegter writes and argues for fun and profit. He is a columnist, magazine journalist and apprentice model shipwright. In his spare time, he helps run a

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