Social scientists’ views on Covid-19 in Southern Africa (6)

The 13 digits on a South African green ID (© Public domain)

The untold struggles of foreign nationals working in private security companies during the nationwide lockdown in South Africa

Dostin Lakika

Dostin Lakika is a Research Associate at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Wits University, and at the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS-Research).

Since the outbreak of coronavirus many countries around the world have been looking for ways to contain the spread of the pandemic. One of the measures that has become popular in a number of countries is the lockdown. After the declaration of the state of emergency, South Africa became the first African country to impose the twenty-one-day lockdown (restriction of people’s movements) which started on the 26th March and which was expected to end on the 16th April 2020. This decision was taken by the President of the country following the report indicating there is an upsurge in the spread of Covid-19. However, on the 9th April the president announced an extension of the national lockdown by a further two weeks beyond the initial twenty-one days. It is important to stress that South Africa is the first African country with high number of positive cases to covid-19 and projections show a daily increase of infected people. In his address, the president declared that since the nation-wide lockdown the rate of new cases in south Africa has slowed significantly with the average daily passing from 42% to 4% (Ramaphosa, 2020).

The lockdown is one of the measures which not only restricts the freedom of movement of the populations but also disrupts the mechanisms of ordinary functioning. The socio-economic consequences of lockdown are felt by all social strata. Importantly, South Africa is one of the African countries which registers a significant influx of refugees and asylum seekers coming from everywhere. In a country, where socio-economic challenges are often associated with the presence of migrants, the lockdown can contribute to strengthening the marginalization of foreign nationals.

While everyone has come to an agreement that coronavirus does not discriminate and brings humanity together in ways that have never been thought possible, the South African response to this pandemic has been discriminatory towards foreign nationals. This has been encapsulated by critical voices, who emphasised that these discriminatory sentiments may undermine the national efforts to fight against the coronavirus (Vearey and Gandar, 2020; Vearey and Gandar, 2020). However, various measures put in place to contain COVID-19 reflect an anti-migrant sentiment of the South African government. First of all, the government started by announcing the erection of a 40km-fence within a month at the Beitbridge border with Zimbabwe. From some government officials this project which cost about thirty-two million is aimed to prevent illegal migrants who may be carrying the virus from entering the country. This measure was taken at the time when South Africa recorded a high number of cases of coronavirus while Zimbabwe, which is its direct neighbour, had not yet registered any coronavirus case. Researchers have criticised this measure arguing that the building of fence was not a guarantee to stop the virus outbreaks (Vearey and Gandar, 2020).

Accessing basic health care and facilities in South Africa has always been extremely challenging for foreign nationals who are unaccompanied children, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Since the lockdown, the interactions of those foreign nationals with registered businesses and the police remains a source of concern. Foreigners who own businesses often experience antagonism and prejudice from the police. Despite the fact that the government has allowed all spaza shops to operate, in most cases, police are forcing them to close their shops even when they have the certificates to trade, on the ground that they are foreigners and only citizens’ spaza shops are allowed to open. The closing of foreign nationals’ shops can lead to the spread of the virus (Moyo and Zanker 2020) because people in need of essential goods will be forced to move further to the big shops. The situation is worse with the informal traders. In the past few weeks many were struggling to get the permits in order to operate. Those in the city of Johannesburg, for instance, went to the municipality, but they were told that the limited numbers of permits to be issued was reached and that no more permits were going to be delivered to avoid overcrowding which increases the risk of contracting coronavirus. While South Africans Spaza-shop owners are likely to receive financial support from the government, as announced by the president, foreign nationals who own businesses in the informal sector will have to fend for themselves to survive the impact of this pandemic. A series of measures announced by the South African government which comprise the solidarity response fund aimed to relieve the poor from the effect of coronavirus are mainly designed for citizens.

The distribution of food to people who are struggling to survive requires the presentation of the identity document. Generally speaking, when talking about identity, there is more reference to the green South African identity, an identity document (with ) issued to South African citizens or permanent residence permit holders, that many migrants (refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented) do not have. This clearly becomes a criterion for exclusion of this category of people because of its discriminatory nature. Last time, a friend sent me the announcement (see below) which asks all those who are not employed or those who are employed but who earn less than R3600 per month to contact the service concerned to receive emergency food parcels. To the question of whether asylum seekers, who are actually struggling, could also benefit from this food donation, the answer was: “That one, I don’t know”. This clearly demonstrates that migrants are not part of the measures put in place to alleviate the misery of the population in these difficult times.

Source: WhatsApp forwarded message

Another category of foreign nationals that has not drawn much of people’s attention concerns those involved in private security companies. Many of them were army personnel in their countries before coming to South Africa (Lakika, 2019). They possess suitable skills required by the security industry. Some are refugee status holders; others are asylum seekers and others are undocumented. Some are employed to secure premises inspecting buildings, equipment, and access points; permitting entry; others are hired by some business-owners to maintain safe and secure environment for customers and employees, to prevent cases of robberies in shops; others again are employed to protect individuals. They are endowed with necessary skills acquired from the army for many of them who provide essential services in an environment marked by violence and criminality.

Since the institution of the lockdown, the lives of these foreigners involved in private security companies have been disrupted. Many have deserted their workplaces and are now experiencing various challenges: their income earning capacity has been severely impacted. Some are struggling to put food on the table; others express the uncertainty about how to pay rent at the month-end as well as about how to support their families back in their home countries.

Three reasons are used to justify their duty sidestep:

  • 1. Companies employing them are not registered within the regulatory authority and therefore cannot provide with authorisation documents to allow them move freely during the whole period of the lockdown;
  • 2. Some of these migrants are also illegal in terms of the private security regulations. They are unregistered with Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA) and are afraid to be arrested if they are found on duties without being able to present their PSIRA certificates. The extreme hardships faced by these foreigners involved in the private security companies are not due to Coronavirus. They are the result of PSIRA’s regulations which clearly exclude foreigners who do not possess the valid identity document.
  • 3. Many of them are also illegal in terms of their stay in the country. Some have their asylum permits expired for several months and have become illegal in terms of their immigration status. Attempts to renew their permits have remained unsuccessful. Others have been undocumented since their entry into South Africa. They have never been recognised as asylum seekers due to difficult access to documentation in South Africa. Therefore, they are reluctant to report to work during this period of human movements’ restrictions for fear of possible arrest, detention and even deportation.

The status of foreign nationals involved in the private security industry needs to be recognised and formalised as essential workers. This recognition and formalisation require that the department of home affairs provide them with proper documentation which will enable them to be registered with the PSIRA. This registration will enable them to become full members of this regulatory body and to be protected from cheap labour and other forms of exploitation they face in unregistered private security companies that employ them. At this time of coronavirus, employers must provide them with protective equipment, hand sanitisers, hand-washing stations, training on Covid-specific measures to be observed to flatten the pandemic, rapid testing, and health support.

To conclude, South Africans and foreign nationals are all in need of protection at this critical moment. Foreign nationals have become part of the South African social fabric. Their protection is essential to contain the spread of the virus. They all need to be included in the supporting measures announced by the government. Without taking migrants into account, any policy aimed to flatten the spread of the virus may fail and the spread of the virus will further disintegrate the South Africa social fabric.

Acknowledging the great danger this disease poses on everyone and on the whole world, President Cyril Ramaphosa (2020) said, in his update to South Africans on the fourth day of the lockdown, “It [coronavirus] infects the rich and the poor, the young and the old, black and white, those who live in the cities and those who live in the rural areas” and I would add foreign nationals, documented and undocumented, as well as local citizens. Hence, everyone must be integrated in the government’s Covid-19 specific response measures in order to defeat it all together.


Moyo, K. and Zanker, F., (2020), “South Africa’s xenophobic agenda is impeding its coronavirus response”, African Arguments, 9 April.

Lakika, D.M., (2019), Living the past in the present: a reconstruction of the memories of war and violence of former Congolese soldiers living in South Africa (Doctoral dissertation).

Ramaphosa, C., 9 April 2020, “Statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa on COVID-19 update.”

Vearey, J. and Gandar, S. (2020), ‘Foreign migrants must be included in Covid-19 response’, Daily Maverick, 20 March.

Vearey, J. and Gandar, S., (2020), ‘Border walls don’t stop viruses, but a blanket amnesty might’, Mail & Guardian, 30 March.