University of Johannesburg: UJ research assesses the challenges faced by foreign nationals in SA during the COVID-19 pandemic response 

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the President of South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country’s vaccination plan will make COVID-19 vaccines available to all living in South Africa, regardless of their citizenship status. A researcher at the Centre for Social Change and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Paddington Mutekwe’s research report investigates the challenges faced by foreign nationals during the pandemic.

These challenges are categorised as protection, health, and socio-economic crises, says Mutekwe.

“On the protection crisis, reckless statements from public figures catalysed xenophobia, and there was a lack of political will to combat the problem,” stressed Mutekwe. He added that Civil Society Organisations, especially in South Africa, played a valuable role in addressing xenophobic sentiments and practices.

Even though the government extended the validity of documents that expired during the lockdown, some institutions did not honour this extension, says Mutekwe.

“In some instances, notably at border posts, foreign nationals were declared undesirable persons for overstaying in South Africa.”

He points out that during the health crisis, foreign nationals’ earlier bad experiences with public health institutions discouraged many from accessing public healthcare, and, in consequence, they made use of private providers, at extra expense.

“People defined as ‘undocumented’ were not provided with vaccinations, and while this affected many South Africans (those who had lost their IDs for example), it prevented a lot of foreigners from protecting themselves against the virus. This had the further effect of discouraging foreign residents more widely.”

Mutekwe further suggests that the government did little to ensure that information was accessible to foreign nationals.

“Failure to translate public health messages into foreign languages was a particular problem. This vacuum was filled by organisations like Lawyers for Human Rights and African Diaspora Forum. Foreigners lost their jobs and faced challenges accessing the government’s hunger alleviation programmes and they had to get help from churches and their social networks, while others had to cut costs by reducing the size of their accommodation and the amount of the remittances sent home.”

Overall, findings suggest a lack of political will from the government in helping to ensure that foreign nationals were catered for in its relief measures.