Immigration - cuts to the core of community and country

Written by Tali Feinberg, Editor of the Cape Jewish Chronicle for the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

Participated: Mrs Julia Willand and Ms Anna Steiger from IMCOSA (images)

“The subject of immigration policy is very close to the heart of the Jewish community because all of us are descendants of immigrants to South Africa,” said Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies Executive Director David Jacobson in opening his organisation’s ‘Transformation Conversation’ on ‘What type of immigration policy should South Africa adopt?’

The Cape Board’s ‘Transformation Conversation’ series is a platform for the Jewish community to engage in civil society issues that concern all South Africans. The ‘Big Immigration Debate’ panel hosted key players in this discussion: Minister of Home Affairs Naledi Pandor; Economist Professor Emeritus Brian Kantor;

Gary Eisenberg Minister of Home Affairs Naledi Pandor

Dr Mamphela Ramphele (Leader of Agang SA), Chris Whelan (CEO, Accelerate Cape Town), immigrant and entrepreneur Rapaleng Rabana; and immigration attorney, newly-elected Cape Board Chairman and debate moderator Gary Eisenberg.

Agang Leader Mamphela Ramphele CEO Accelerate Cape Town Chris Whelan

While community members and others may see the topic of immigration as somewhat peripheral compared to more pressing problems, the variety and number of audience members demonstrated that this was not the case. In addition, the breadth and depth of the ideas covered in the debate showed that immigration does indeed impact the lives of ordinary South Africans and the Jewish community. Whether it be about economic policy, the African continent, education, identity, entrepreneurship or upward mobility; the discussion brought together essential aspects of succeeding in South Africa, both as individuals and as part of society.

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“As a department, we regard immigration as a complex challenge and opportunity,” said Minister Pandor. She said that in the past, immigration had been thought of in a negative light, instead of as a strategy for growth. “We need to rethink our policies so that we can attract skills, jobs and investment,” she said.

DSC_5820_flippedThe Minister added that South Africa should start positioning itself as a competitive global player in attracting skilled immigrants. “Our existing visa regime already addresses these needs, but we need to refine our policy and implementation to ensure we achieve the desired objectives,” she said.

In terms of unskilled immigrants, Minister Pandor discussed how South Africa needs to differentiate between asylum seekers and ‘economic immigrants’; so that people wanting to emigrate from other African countries can do so without illegal asylum permits, and that attracting such immigrants will benefit the region as a whole.

Other challenges include security; how  South Africa is an ‘epicentre of human trafficking’; and how South Africa has to send illegal immigrants back to their home countries, which in turn do not let them back in. “We need to work with the region and share our responsibility,” said Minister Pandor.

“We are also working hard to improve the calibre of our staff so that we manage the immigration functions competently,” she emphasised. “It is a complex area of work but we are convinced that it has immense strategic opportunities for South African development.”

DSC_5745DSC_5929Professor Brian Kantor also stressed how crucial it is that South Africa attracts skilled immigrants. “If you want to help the poor, encourage immigration of skilled labour!” he summarised. He discussed a variety of fascinating contemporary realities, such as how immigrants from Zimbabwe are an excellent contribution to the labour force, but that they in turn keep wages at a low rate, which can lead to social clashes. Yet at the same time he emphasised that entrepreneurial immigrants will primarily benefit the poorer classes through enterprise and jobs.

In addition, he told of how 370 000 South Africans have migrated home since 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis, which has truly benefitted South Africa. However, the country needs to find more ‘pull factors’ to continue bringing ex-South Africans and skilled immigrants back to the country, he said.

A human issue

DSC_5874Dr Mamphela Ramphele delved into the complexities and controversies of immigration, highlighting how “It is to South Africa’s economic and social detriment that we have not been able to strike the balance between our moral obligations, the contribution of skilled people to our economy and the challenge of overwhelming economic migration.”

“As Africa’s leading economy, we should have anticipated that our country would become an extremely desirable destination for many of the continent’s migrant workers,” she continued. “South Africa has been unable to manage migration to respond to its own political and economic needs, nor have we fulfilled our obligations to our neighbours and other African allies in this regard. We need to adopt a global moral framework that embraces humanism, inspired by what in Africa we call ‘the spirit of Ubuntu’– the interconnectedness of all human beings,” she said.

Delving into the facts and figures, Chris Whelan noted that by 2050, Africa will constitute around 20% of the world’s population, while Europe will be around 7-8%. “This massively impacts on migration thinking globally, as countries and regions seek to take advantage of skilled migration but limit the social implications of uncontrolled migration,” he explained.

DSC_5789“In terms of migration policy, the ideal is an open policy, which actively encourages skills acquisition across a range of levels. This is not just ‘white collar’ and tertiary skills,” emphasised Whelan. “Take the example of Saldanha. It needs petro-chemical engineers, but equally it needs artisans and less-skilled labour. A possible solution lies in encouraging use of unskilled labour to build productive infrastructure.

“Skills are mobile and should not be seen as geographically bound,” he added. “In a post global financial crisis (GFC) world, South Africa is well positioned to take advantage of relatively poor conditions in other parts of the world. We have the advantage of being a proverbial ‘soft landing’ in Africa, in the same way places like Singapore and Hong Kong are for Asia,” continued Whelan.


“The reality of globalisation – financially and economically, but perhaps more in terms of geopolitical factors – presents us with clear and fairly stark choices: live together, embrace a common destiny and prosper, or travel an isolationist, protectionist path and face decline and failure. This is not an ideological issue. It is not a political matter, not a business versus labour matter. It is a human matter,” he concluded.

DSC_5804Rapaleng Rabana shared her own experiences as an immigrant to South Africa from Botswana, bringing home the reality of the challenges faced by immigrants but also the opportunities for success (she was recently listed by Forbes as one of 30 under 30 Best Young African Entrepreneurs). “Entrepreneurial immigrants are ‘lower risk’ in that they are not averse to the idea of radical change, and this mindset is extremely valuable,” she said.

Audience members enthusiastically posed complex questions to the panellists, and many took to Twitter to share their thoughts. Summarising much of the positive points that were put forward, Vasilli Sofiadellis tweeted, “New skills, new ideas – Our migration policy should speak to these!” Indeed, the event demonstrated the need for discussion around immigration, and the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies certainly brought a relevant topic to the fore by initiating this debate.


For more information on the ‘Transformation Conversation’ series, contact David Jacobson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Media links about the debate:

Business Day:

South African Government Online:

To read Minister Naledi Pandor’s speech from the event, click here.

To read Prof Kantor’s blog post about the event, click here.

To read Chris Whelan’s Opinionista post in The Daily Maverick, click here.

See more photos on our Facebook page here.