The "absurd" claim by Gauteng's police chief that South Africa's richest province was home to as many as three million "illegal" immigrants was part of a pattern by government departments to blame undocumented migrants for their own shortcomings, Loren Landau, director of the University of the Witwatersrand's Forced Migration Studies Programme (FMSP), told IRIN.
Simon Mpembe, Gauteng's acting chief of police, reportedly told the police parliamentary portfolio committee in Cape Town on 2 March that there were "more people to police, but we don't have enough officials to do the extra work. We can't say we won't police them because they come from another country."
Landau said statements like this were "worrying", and "we should not let the police commissioners' prevarications and fabrications distract us from the reality that they [police] spend far too much of their time and money on policing non-nationals."
A FMSP study conducted in 2009 - One Burden Too Many? A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Immigration Policing in Gauteng - found that the police spent a quarter of their annual budget, or R350 million (US$48 million) in Gauteng alone, on immigration policing, despite instructions from senior officials that this was not a priority.
The 2007 Community Survey by Statistics South Africa, the most recent and accurate data available, estimated the number of foreign-born residents - including South African citizens - at about 1.2 million people, or 2.79 percent of the population. The number foreign nationals residing in Gauteng was put at 580,000.
"That number has undoubtedly increased in the last three years, but the numbers are still likely to be under 2 million - and that is for the whole country. Unless the police have conducted their own survey, they are evidently fabricating the numbers to suit their purposes," the FMSP said in a statement.
Landau commented that undocumented foreign nationals were "blamed for all their [police] failings, and it's not the first time [government departments had blamed foreign nationals]" for their inadequacies. He cited instances where the departments of housing, home affairs and education had attributed their "non-performance" to foreign nationals in South Africa.
|They cause a great number of problems with crime; we arrest them and protect them with resources that are intended for our citizens|
At the same parliamentary briefing, Limpopo chief police Calvin Sengani said the province, which borders Zimbabwe, had to deal with foreign nationals "flooding our towns and cities. They cause a great number of problems with crime; we arrest them and protect them with resources that are intended for our citizens."
Landau said the claim that undocumented foreign nationals were responsible for one of the world's highest crime rates was not borne out by statistics, which showed that most crimes were committed by South Africans.
The police "spend their time looking for foreigners - it helps their own legitimacy [because foreigners are blamed for crime], and this is then seen as fighting crime. It is a spurious logic. They [the police] are not getting the serious criminals, they are getting the guys selling tomatoes on the street without a licence," he said.
The "real issue" was that it was difficult for people to come to South Africa legally; if there was a regional migration system about 85 percent of undocumented foreign nationals would have documentation, Landau commented.
Mpilo Shange, an advocacy officer at the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, said statements blaming foreign nationals for crime were "dangerous".
Since May 2008, when xenophobic violence swept through South Africa, killing at least 62 people and displacing 100,000 others, the government had started addressing the issue, but "a lot still needs to be done", she said.
Xenophobic violence has often accompanied service delivery protests, which have mushroomed across Gauteng Province since the beginning of 2010. Attacks on foreign owned shops and businesses have been reported. Shange said, "We are worried about it [protests combined with xenophobic violence]."