Is “unemployment” an important metric? Very similar controversies in the United States and South Africa throw this goldmark standard for economic planning into question.

Both countries currently suffer from chronic waves of refugees exacerbated by a wry mixture of politics with pandemic. Both countries’ fairly liberal policies towards refugees are at contentious odds with large parts of their citizenry. Both deal with growing social unrest that many argue impedes difficult struggles with institutionalized racism.

A few weeks ago a group of South African pan-Africanists, composed of many African immigrants to South Africa, formed a new activist group called “The Polisee Space.” They inaugurated their “pan-African consulting services” with a national zoom discussion of the current refugee problem.

The event occurred coincidentally with a highly publicized government relocation of recent refugees.

Travelers to South Africa likely remember Greenmarket Square, one of the primary attractions for foreign visitors to Cape Town.

Until a couple weeks ago, though, Greenmarket Square was anything but a tourist attraction. Refugees fleeing increasing conflict and poor pandemic response in other African countries took safe haven in the Central Methodist Church in the square. Authorities turned a blind eye until more than 500 had packed the relatively small church and covid began spreading like wildfire.

On a per capita basis South Africa’s illegal immigration problem is on par with the U.S.’ Extremely liberal policies on immigration initiated by Nelson Mandela that broadened even further those inscribed in the new constitution continue.

South Africa has a much higher unemployment rate than America, often four or five times as high. This gives many critical politicians the ammunition to criticize liberal immigration policies as economically volatile. They point to the many hotspots in Johannesburg and Soweto where violence against the Somali and Congolese immigrant communities is becoming uncontrollable.

Now, however, the endless civil war in neighboring Mozambique has fired up considerably, and a raging pandemic in Tanzania where authorities denied any problem (even after the President Magufuli died of covid) has prompted thousands more than usual to flee to South Africa from these countries as well.

The government’s response, however, had been to extend for indefinite periods almost all visas or refugee proceedings until the pandemic gets under control.

“There are no foreigners taking anybody’s job,” Mukoni Ratshitanga, a pan-African advocate argued in the national zoom inauguration of Polisee Space. Ratshitanga contends that un- and under employment will not be altered by removing illegal immigrants from the equation.

Over the many ups-and-downs of economic prosperity in South Africa certain industries there – mining, in particular – have relied without interruption on foreign workers. Just as in the U.S. there are many foreign workers contracted in the agricultural sector as well. In all cases because wages for non-citizens are lower.

“The challenges you are dealing with are not because of foreigners,” he said, adding that migrants looking for economic opportunities more than not end up contributing substantially to economic growth. Those who are allowed to remain and become citizens tend to be more productive and pay more in taxes than a citizenry mired in the under classes.

A number of other participants in the national zoom discussed the human rights violations governments like South Africa and the United States are being pushed to by their citizenry as well, complicating an economic issue with a cultural one.

But the problem is not that immigrants squeeze out citizens for jobs. Basically what activists argue is that the refugee is necessary to the health of western capitalist economies but is being pinned as the scapegoat for economic stresses that are actually basic, structural flaws in their economic systems.

I totally agree and I think the logical corollary is that “unemployment” is more of a fixed percentage of different capitalist economies than an indicator of prosperity.

Moreover, by allowing the scapegoating of refugees as the cause of “unemployment” we contribute to institutionalized racism.

We in the west must confront the basic flaws in capitalism, which have been allowed to fester now for nearly two generations. Capitalism may be our best economic game, but without aggressive regulation and intervention it’s often controlled by the greedy and corrupt.

Racism has been around a lot longer than capitalism. Let’s not allow the younger sibling to grow as institutionally difficult.