Recent news reports have indicated that the economic situation in Swaziland is now dire. King MSwati III, the ruler of Swaziland, is making urgent requests for financial aid. He has already managed to secure a sizeable amount of money from South Africa, but it won’t be enough, and now he is criticising the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for trying to impose certain criteria on Swaziland before they will grant any aid.
If we look past the politics and the money, what we see is another humanitarian crisis waiting to happen. Zimbabwe’s economy imploded in the last decade, for whatever reason. I am not going to go into details now. But the point is that whenever economic and/or political conditions become adverse in a country in Africa, people do what they do everywhere else in the world – they migrate. And one of the most popular destinations for refugees in Africa is South Africa.
What makes this phenomenon even more pronounced in the case of Zimbabwe is the fact that the two countries are geographically adjacent. People in Zimbabwe only have to cross one border to enter South Africa, and it is a land border. It is also a very long border which is poorly policed or fenced. Swaziland could pose the same situation to the South African government, because Swaziland is also a geographical neighbour, and is, in fact, closer to the economic hub of South Africa in Gauteng than Zimbabwe is. Refugees from Zimbabwe first have to travel through Limpopo to get to Johannesburg, whereas refugees from Swaziland can simply travel straight through.
The parallel between the Zimbabwean experience and the developing Swazi crisis should not be ignored or underestimated. We have seen just how expensive and time-consuming it can be to document thousands of illegal immigrants. Even if they qualify for refugee permits, it takes time and paperwork to process them. The financial cost of the Zimbabwe documentation programme has not been advertised sufficiently, but it is probably very high, and it is all South African taxpayers’ money.
Of course, this is not to say that refugees should be turned away or victimised. And now that it seems likely that there is going to be some kind of economic meltdown in Swaziland, perhaps it is time for the South African authorities to start preparing a more comprehensive, effective process than the one they used to deal with the influx of people from Zimbabwe. This could start with obvious practical measures, such as stationing more troops on the Swazi border to assist in the processing of refugees, or the establishment of a special application process for Swazi nationals. This kind of initiative will pre-empt the need for a long-term and expensive programme like the Zimbabwe documentation programme. The danger is that if the South African government does not institute preventive action now, immediately, today, then we could be faced with the same kind of problem we are seeing with immigrants from Zimbabwe, who have been allowed to remain illegally in South Africa for years and who now either have illegal documentation or no documents at all.