Anti-Immigrant Violence and Trade Barriers in South Africa

The anti-immigrant violence in South Africa highlights some of the problems for intra-African trade that I mentioned last week at On Political Risk.

Mob violence has killed at least 20 in and around Johannesburg as violence against immigrants continues to spread. Tensions have been high for years in South Africa’s poorer neighborhoods, where those with next to nothing fear that immigrants with nothing are getting jobs that should go to South Africans.

The official unemployment rate is 23 percent, inflation is rising, access to medical care is low, and housing conditions are abysmal. But compared to neighboring Zimbabwe this looks like a promised land. Last year more than 260,000 illegal immigrants were expelled from South Africa, most coming from Zimbabwe, Angola, Malawi, and the region’s poorest states. More than 5,000 immigrants from Zimbabwe and other neighboring countries have fled since the mob violence began, and more are likely to do so if it spreads further.

The perception in sub-Saharan Africa’s richest country that immigrants are taking jobs, food, medical care, and housing that would otherwise go to poor South Africans will complicate any discussion about opening the regions trade barriers. While nearly every economist would disagree, it is no surprise that poor South Africans see this as a zero-sum competition. If the Democratic presidential candidates feel the need to badmouth NAFTA in the Unite States, imagine the uphill battle free trade with Malawi and Zimbabwe faces in South Africa.

Still efforts are underway to open South Africa’s borders to its poorer neighbors by 2010 by allowing passport holders to travel across southern Africa without individual visas for each country. The program is tied to a similar deal that would allow tourists from the richest countries to travel the region on a single visa, the “univisa,” which should help boost the region’s tourism industry. The deadline for the program is the 2010 World Cup to be held in South Africa.

While the economic benefits to reducing trade and travel barriers is clear, the political situation will make it more difficult to bring into being.

This post original appeared at On Political Risk.