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Immigration and Violence in South Africa, and Contours of a Christian Response

Immigration and Violence in South Africa

In the news today is a story, once again, about violence against immigrants in South Africa.  There has been occasional such violence over the years, with 60 people dying in 2008.  The issue is complex in South Africa for various reasons, but the problems of illegal immigration, the economy, and violence are real.  What is needed, first, is a better understanding of the situation, and that on a regional basis.  Second, the Church is somewhat disadvantaged in offering a significant response to the situation because the 'institutional' churches are in decline.  Third, South Africa's own politics and narrative plays into the situation beyond simply speaking of 'immigration' per se.  Having been received by other countries during Apartheid, there is some sense of responsibility to pay back the debt.

According to Statistics South Africa, 69,216 temporary permits and 4,136 permanent permits were granted in 2014 (see online: Of the permanent permits, 164 were granted to refugees.  The percentage of temporary permits given to Africans was 52.6% and permanent permits given to Africans amounted to 63.8%.  The top 10 countries receiving temporary permits were: Zimbabwe, India, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, UK, Lesotho, DRC, and Angola.  The top 10 countries receiving permanent permits were: Zimbabwe, India,  China, DRC, Nigeria, UK, Lesotho, Pakistan, Germany, and Zambia.  Part of the story of immigration in Africa is not simply economic; it is also political turmoil and social displacement.

But how many illegal immigrants are in South Africa?  According to the 2011 census, the population in South Africa then numbered 51.77 million.  This marked a nearly 7 million person increase in just 10 years (see online:  As 2.2 million persons on the census listed their birthplace in a foreign country, some have argued that this, rather than an alleged but unsupported figure of 5 million is the true number of illegal immigrants (see online:  The article is aware that foreign birth does not equate to illegal immigration and that the census does not register every person in the country.  It has no further data to offer.  As so often in the case of illegal immigration, we simply do not have a handle on the numbers.

According to the BBC, citizens have now been attacking foreigners in certain regions of the country, and officials have begun deporting undocumented aliens.  Mr. Malusi Gigaba, Minister of Home Affairs, has reported that, in 2015-2016, 33,339 illegal immigrants were deported (see online:  According to the same BBC article, the South African Finance Minister, Mr. Pravin Gordhan, has stated that 35% of the labour force was either unemployed or had given up looking for work.  (The unemployment figures are higher for younger people.)

The situation in South Africa is indicative of a variety of problems around immigration in the world, but each situation is unique.  The ethnic and religious mix, the question of whether immigrants are taking jobs away from others, the birth rate of natural citizens (declining in European countries, rising in African countries), the impact all this has on the labour force, the issue of whether immigrants are contributing to crime (or terrorism), the social and political impact on the country, international relations--the issues play out differently from one context to another.  Naive comparisons and analyses seem to abound.

Contours of a Christian Response

The Church, for its part, however, should look at such situations with different lenses.  The Old Testament, for all its ethnocentricity, nevertheless makes room for foreigners living in Israel's midst.  God's message to Israel was to care for the widows, orphans, and aliens--the most vulnerable, the landless, the poor.  Justice did not mean equality, it meant caring for the needy.  As we read in Isaiah, 'Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?' (Isaiah 58).  Yet God's message was also that the aliens were expected to live according to the moral standards of Israel (Lev. 17-26), not have their own code of ethics.  If they lived with the Israelites, they were subject to Israel's Law.  This was not some general idea; it rested on the conviction that God's Law was the only right Law and that Israel was God's people.  The Church, as God's people, celebrates its multi-ethnicity not because it values inclusiveness and diversity but because 'the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel' (Ephesians 3.6).  As Israel, the Church has its own moral standards that require conformity if others are to join them (cf. 1 Cor. 5).  It is not a government and should not behave as one (it does not, e.g., mete out corporal and capital punishments), but it is a distinct 'body' that has clear, not porous, boundaries of confession and for holiness.

These two principles, to care for those in need and to accept other ethnic groups equally into the Church when persons come to believe in Christ, should guide Christian responses to the immigration problems in the world today.  The Church should offer uncompromising aide to those in need, on the one hand, and evangelize those who have not yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ.  Third, both Israel and the Church have an historical and narrative perspective that helps them in dealing with immigration issues.  The Israelites told stories of their patriarch, Abraham, being a 'wandering' Aramean (Deut. 26.5) and their nation's origin in abusive slavery in Egypt (Deut. 26.6).  Such stories undergirded an ethic of sharing the firstfruits of the land and tithes together with the Levites, aliens, widows, and orphans (Deut. 26.10-12).  Also, Israel's experience of exile provides another narrative informing their ethic.  As exiles, they are told to 'seek the welfare of the city...and pray to the Lord on its behalf,' getting on with life (Jeremiah 29.4-7).  The Church told the story of Jesus, God's eternal Son, becoming incarnate in the world in order to save it.  Also, the early Christians, facing persecution and suffering from citizens and governing officials where they lived in the Roman Empire, saw themselves as God's people once again living as sojourners in the land (cf. 1 Peter).  They were citizens of a foreign place--heaven.  In this point, the examples of Esther and Daniel (two famous exiles of Israel) are pertinent: the Church, like these Jewish heroes, are to fit in as best they can but without compromising their faith and practices as God's people.

We should be clear: Scripture does not establish a government policy on how to deal with illegal immigration.  But it does indicate ways in which the Church might be involved.  Christians may find ways to seek justice for the vulnerable--not harbouring criminals but making sure that they get justice in a system that may be weighted against them.  They may help the needy whatever their legal status simply because they are in need.  They should have empathy for the immigrant, for they themselves are sojourners.  And they will proclaim the Gospel of Christ that states that God our Saviour 'desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Timothy 2.4).  Ours is not a naive universalism, as touted in certain liberal circles even to the point of reading sacred Scriptures of other religions in churches or building cathedrals with the funds of non-Christian, secret societies (as recently witnessed in England).  Among the gifts Christians might offer non-Christian immigrants is the gift of God, Jesus Christ our Saviour.  They proffer an invitation to receive the good news that Christ Jesus died for everyone's sins and that those who come to faith, believing in the salvation offered through Jesus' death on the cross, will be welcomed by him.  The Christian Gospel is good news to the alien: the holy God receives sinners into His kingdom if they repent.  Christians may welcome others and show hospitality to the stranger, but they will also understand this to include an offer to receive God's gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.