13/12/2016 04:57 SAST | Updated 13/12/2016 18:53 SAST

Herman Mashaba Plays His Trump Card

He blames illegal immigrants for Johannesburg's problems. Sound familiar?

When Donald Trump launched his presidential bid on June 16, 2015 at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York he articulated a populist agenda which was hardly exhaustive in nature: He simply blamed Mexico and undocumented Mexicans residing in the USA for a glut of social and economic problems confronting America.

Trump called Mexicans "rapists" and "criminals" and said "When Mexico send its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

Trump frequently made similar claims about Mexicans and Muslims throughout his campaign for the presidency but offered no substantial proof to support his much-reported allegations. He further promised to build a wall along the border with Mexico to stop illegal migration. And Trump cast aspersions on the integrity of US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel – the man who presided over a lawsuit against Trump University, because, as Mr Trump put it: "He is Mexican." Although his parents immigrated to America from Mexico, Judge Curiel is an American citizen by birth. Trump tapped into the raw nerve of deep displeasure simmering in America as a consequence of large-scale job losses in Middle America, high crime rates and a post 9-11 fear of Islamic fundamentalism. Holding foreign nationals responsible for industrial shutdowns and crime in general worked wonders for the Manhattan property mogul on November 8.

The battle cry Mayor Mashaba bellowed sounds a lot like statements being made by the Kenyan government. Kenya, which is home to hundreds of thousands of mostly Somali refugees, has decided to close the biggest refugee camp in the world, Dabaab; a place home to more than 250,000 refugees.

Herman Mashaba, the Black Like Me magnate, has 100 days into his tenure as the mayor of Johannesburg, played his trump card. Like the president-elect of America discovered in the not-too-distant past, he too has found his Mexicans, his scapegoats: they are the illegal immigrants in Johannesburg. While Mashaba stopped short of promising to build a wall in a press conference, he did launch his war against undocumented migrants last week, calling them "criminals" and accusing them of hijacking the "inner city".

He said: "I'm declaring war on criminality in our city. I will use every available legal process to ensure we get rid of these criminal elements. I know it's not going to be an easy exercise and I know some people might think we are hard, heartless. No, we are doing this because we love our country and our people. We don't want to see our people living under these appalling conditions, being made to pay rentals to slumlords and criminality and we sit back and say they have the right."

The phenomenon of illegal migration is not limited to Johannesburg: the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports there are 65,3 million displaced in the world. Of these, 21,3 million people are refugees; over half of whom are under the age of 18.

The battle cry Mayor Mashaba bellowed sounds a lot like statements being made by the Kenyan government. Kenya, which is home to hundreds of thousands of mostly Somali refugees, has decided to close the biggest refugee camp in the world, Dabaab; a place home to more than 250,000 refugees. Before Kenya decided to close the camp, it housed up to 330,000 refugees. Authorities in Kenya allege the camp has become a breeding ground for terrorists and criminals. The closure comes almost two years after Al-Shabaab, the radical Islamic jihadist group based in Somalia, which has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, killed 148 people and injured more than 79 in an attack on Garissa University College in north-eastern Kenya on 2 April 2015. So anti-immigration sentiments are running high as a general election looms in 2017.

Another country confronted by illegal immigration on a massive scale is Germany, which, like South Africa, has been flooded by hundreds of thousands of refugees – mainly Syrian asylum-seekers fleeing civil war in their home country. Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing criticism from far-right parties for accepting more than one million refugees in 2015 alone. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union, lost ground to the anti-immigrant and anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in a northeastern state election in early September this year. Germany, like South Africa, has a migration problem, and voters may have punished Chancellor Merkel for her open-door refugee policy.

In December 2015, the UNHCR released a report, which estimated South Africa is home to one million asylum-seekers. That is a vast number of migrants seeking refuge by any standard of measure. South Africa does in fact have the largest number of asylum seekers in the world according to the report. That is, it hosts more aspiring refugees than countries like the USA and Germany; states that have much larger human capital and material resources to allocate to the welfare of asylum-seekers. The refugee situation is pretty dire for the Southern African nation, as wars in Sudan, South Sudan, DRC and Somalia have not only triggered mass displacements of civilian populations in Central and East Africa, but also exacerbated a refugee crisis that extends all the way to South Africa.

This refugee crisis is further swelled by economic migrants from SADC nations like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Swaziland and Lesotho who are keen to work in the richest and most diversified economy in Africa much in the same manner economic migrants from Mexico and Latin American states like Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras and Brazil are drawn to find work in the biggest economy in the world.

Migrants wait to be rescued as they drift in the Mediterranean Sea some 20 nautical miles north off the coast of Libya on October 3, 2016. Italy coordinated the rescue of more than 5,600 migrants off Libya, three years to the day after 366 people died in a sinking that first alerted the world to the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

But remember, there is a distinction between an asylum-seeker and a refugee. While the latter is a migrant who has fled their country for fear of prosecution and has been granted asylum or refugee status the former is still seeking permission to stay in a country.

Also remember that, strictly speaking, economic migrants do not enjoy the rights enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which seeks to help "someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being prosecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion".

This explains why the Department of Home Affairs rejects 90% of applications made for refugee status in South Africa.

But South Africa is a signatory to the UN Refuge Convention and is obliged to facilitate and process refugee applications. So, as at the end of last year, one million asylum-seekers had lodged applications at Home Affairs and were awaiting the outcomes of their applications. But does it mean one million undocumented migrants are criminals?

Yes, you will find criminal elements in any significant population of people. So you will find criminal elements posing as refugees attempting to beat the asylum application system in South Africa. But there is a likelihood the majority of migrants are honest people, who are desperate for a fresh start in life in South Africa for a host of reasons; and the link between no documentation and criminality, is at best, tenuous.

So while sweeping statements made by Mayor Mashaba, much like the statements Trump made prior to his electoral victory in November, hold water, they may paint an imprecise portrait of the bigger picture at hand.