Social experiences that are considered to be politically sensitive, especially those that put pressure on the ruling party and its elite in government, tend to exert pressure on and accentuate the need to develop or reform public policies. Migration systems, as products of public policies, are not immune to such political forces. More often than not, migration systems that are considered weak or ineffective become hotly contested subjects among and between political actors, whether they be political parties, interest groups, the government of the day, or sections of the population. However, it is important that public policies are developed, formulated, implemented, monitored, and evaluated rationally through the use of evidence-based matrices.

On November 10, 2023, the South African Department of Home Affairs Gazetted (released for public comment) a white paper on “Citizenship, Immigration, and Refugee Protection: Toward a Complete Overhaul of the Migration System in South Africa". The main stated objective of the White Paper is to bring about alignment and policy coherence on the three main aspects of inward migration, namely, citizenship status, immigration, and the refugee management regime.

The Minister of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has cast himself as a public representative who doesn’t shy away from talking tough and making tough decisions concerning the negative effects of illegal and irregular immigration. In his opening statement to the White Paper, the Minister categorically states that the document “proposes radical changes and a policy framework that will no doubt bring stability, desired results for economic development, and effective citizenship, immigration, and refugee protection policy measures." The effort to develop a comprehensive and consolidated policy framework on these elements of migration is indeed commendable. However, there seems to be evidence contradicting the assertion that stronger and more restrictive migration policies necessarily lead to effective management of the phenomenon.

Examples of failed strict migration regimes include that of the United States of America (US), with reportedly 250 000 migrants having crossed the southern border in November 2023. The management of migration is already one of the main topical issues in the US in the build-up to the 2024 presidential elections. Effective management of migration is a moving target with multiple dynamics and various interests at stake. As much as governments ought to respond to the political pressures of their constituencies, they also need to strike a delicate balance between competing interests and priorities when formulating public policies, including migration regimes. Undoubtedly, there is a gulf between tough political and policy rhetoric, stated policy objectives, intended effects, and actual tangible policy outcomes.

The 2022 South African Census Report indicates that “there were more than 2,4 million international migrants, which equates to just above 3% of the total population. Most of these came from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region (86%), and of these, 45.5% came from Zimbabwe, followed by Mozambique with 18.7% and Lesotho with 10.2%. The top five sending countries to South Africa were Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, and the United Kingdom; these five countries have also maintained their rank since 2011." In essence, the statistics reveal that the top five countries from which the majority of migrants came are either doing less than expected to address the push factors forcing their nationals to choose to live in South Africa, or the latter’s migration pull factors remained attractive for the past five years and perhaps for more years into the future.

No tough rhetoric or government policies would stop the growing surge in the number of people on the move across national borders. The root causes of growing increases in migration trends are well known, and these include protracted political conflicts, human rights abuses, the widespread and dehumanizing scale of poverty, deteriorating living standards, the devastating effects of climate change, unresponsive governments, and the people’s burning desire for a better life. People wouldn’t ordinarily opt to leave their home country simply because the migration laws of the neighboring countries are weak or ineffective. There are far more critical reasons that motivate people to leave their home countries, and the majority of these are related to the quality of life at home compared to the perceived better living conditions on offer elsewhere. Thus, the focus of the migration system should be much more about managing the legal or illegal movement of people across borders, in the same way it should be about addressing the push factors that are managed through other government systems and programs. Effective management of migration can’t be successfully isolated from the rest of the government's performance systems.

South Africa isn’t immune to the developmental challenges of the 21st century; she also needs to confront them head-on. Migration governance is naturally multidimensional and requires a whole-of-society and a whole-of-government approach. While the general public will continue to pressurize the government to curb illegal immigration (inbound migration) for fear of competition over public services and local employment opportunities, business organizations also exert pressure on the same government to ease the cost of doing business with other countries, which includes relaxation of migration laws to facilitate easier movements of persons and goods. In essence, migration policy, like any other public policy, is the product of a compromise reached at the negotiation table by all the interested parties and stakeholders.

The South African 2022 Census report defined migration as “a change in a person’s permanent or usual place of residence." Though this might sound like a rhetorical question, it must, however, be posed: do governments really have “effective” control over people’s decisions or choices to change their permanent or usual place of residence? Within the national borders, perhaps they do, depending on the political system or type of government in place, whether autocratic, authoritarian, or democratic. In the international context, this is less obvious. Nonetheless, answering this question requires an in-depth understanding of the considerations individuals have when changing their place of residence. Such an understanding also compels a certain level of thinking around the question of what ought to be done to either discourage or, if at all possible, stop the change. The latter is said to be the only constant in life, and it is inexorable. Credit should be given where it is due. The DHA White Paper admits that migration is an “unavoidable” international phenomenon. However, the argument continues in the White Paper: “migration should be managed through effective policies and legislative measures, and failure to do so results in insurmountable difficulties."

In their 2013 paper “On the Effectiveness of Immigration Policies," Czaika and de Haas argue that migration (specifically immigration) policies can be conceptualized by grasping three policy gaps, namely:

  • "The discursive gap, which is the discrepancy between public discourses and policies on paper;
  • The implementation gap, which is the disparity between policies on paper and their implementation; and
  • The efficacy gap, which is the extent to which implemented policies are able to affect migration."

Only the passage of time will reveal whether the ‘Complete Overhaul of the Migration System in South Africa’ will address these migration policy gaps. South Africa is known as a country that has a massive wealth of progressive policies but is very poor on their implementation, thus resulting in both implementation and efficacy gaps.

The South African National Development Plan 2030 (NDP) emphasizes the importance of developing a “progressive migration policy." Given the competing interests and priorities of various actors in the migration space, a progressive migration policy entails the participation of all interested parties in its formulation, implementation, and evaluation. History has proven that people tend to embrace changes and policy reforms that advance their interests or maximize their benefits and reject those that threaten or diminish these gains. In the White Paper, the DHA cites examples of current policy abuses related to the visa and permanent residence systems. A progressive migration policy ought to close the loopholes and tighten the checks and balances in the system. Caution should, however, be exercised in the cause of correcting the defects in the system, in that the new stricter regulations and controls do not generate a conducive environment for corruption by officials who might exploit the opportunity to sell information or documents at a high price to those in desperate need of them. Voluntary and relatively easy compliance ought to be critical considerations in the overheated migration system. This could help detect rogue elements in the system and likely make corruption unattractive to officials.

In order to realize the objectives of migration policy efficacy, South Africa ought to also champion a regional model that will help address the root causes of migration. The government should be tough in dealing with the issues and challenges of the day, but this doesn’t equate to passing draconian laws that could dent the international image of the country. The whole-of-government approach includes a foreign policy orientation that prioritizes addressing political and socio-economic issues that give rise to growing illegal migration patterns with South Africa’s neighboring countries. The nurturing of political relations between governing parties in the Southern Africa region ought not to be maintained at all costs, even to the detriment of losing an opportunity to benefit from the positive spin-offs of migration. Migration benefits include improving the lives of people regardless of who they are and where they come from, recruiting scarce skills required in the different sectors of the economy, promoting regional integration through people-to-people relations, closing information gaps through technical and cultural exchanges, as well as removing barriers to trade and economic cooperation. A well-managed migration system could be one of the potent forces to be utilized to create interdependence between nations, thereby discouraging inter-state conflicts.