It’s time for a borderless Africa

No African should be treated like a foreigner in any African country.

Tafi Mhaka's grandfather
In the early 1930s, my grandfather [pictured] immigrated from Watsomba, a village in Mutasa District in Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe), to apartheid South Africa, writes Mhaka [Courtesy of Tafi Mhaka]

On February 7, Kenyan police arrested 41 undocumented Ethiopian migrants and two human smugglers at a house in Nairobi.

The all-male group, which was reportedly on its way to South Africa, will be prosecuted for breaching Kenya’s immigration laws and likely deported to Ethiopia.

Strange as it might sound, these migrants should consider themselves fortunate to have been arrested because their ordeal in Kenya stopped them – at least for now – from embarking on an uncertain and highly dangerous journey.

Between 2020 and 2022, authorities in Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia discovered the bodies of more than 100 undocumented migrants from Ethiopia who have died from hunger or suffocation while travelling clandestinely towards South Africa.

According to the International Organization for Migration, irregular migration from the Horn of Africa to Southern Africa is largely “facilitated by an intricate network of smugglers and traffickers” whose “aggressive attempts to avoid detection by authorities put migrants’ lives in danger”.

As detailed by the African Union, people migrate within Africa due to “a multiplicity of factors that include the need for improved socio-economic conditions through employment, environmental factors, as well as respite from political instability, conflict and civil strife”.

Labour migration, and especially migration of low-skilled workers, is the most consistent source of movement within the continent. Yet most immigration regimes in Africa don’t have visa provisions for such workers and economic refugees, so many desperate immigrants, like those arrested recently in Kenya, seek help from human smugglers to reach countries they perceive as having better employment opportunities.

After shouldering enormous personal risks to emigrate, undocumented migrants are confronted with a new set of threats and dangers once they reach their destinations.

In South Africa, for instance, the anti-migrant organisation Operation Dudula is leading campaigns and actions aimed at making the country as hostile as possible for undocumented African migrants.

Since January, the group has been preventing undocumented migrants from accessing healthcare at a clinic in central Johannesburg and is also trying to remove undocumented children from government schools in Diepsloot, a densely populated settlement. The group has also been targeting migrants who operate small businesses, market stalls and informal convenience shops in townships and urban centres across the country, demanding they close shop and go home.

Migrants in South Africa and beyond are facing such senseless acts of hostility despite Africa’s leading thinkers and prominent politicians repeatedly calling for no African to be regarded as a foreigner anywhere on the continent.

Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party, for example, has frequently expressed this sentiment and called on the continent to collapse its colonial borders.

Similarly, PLO Lumumba, the popular Kenyan public intellectual, has said, “No African country should declare any African persona non grata, it defeats the spirit of African unity.”

Such enlightened and inclusive thinking is admirable, but unfortunately, the political determination to fulfil the widely shared aspiration for a borderless Africa is still inadequate.

In January 2018, the African Union assembly adopted the Protocol to the Treaty establishing the African Economic Community relating to the free movement of people and rights of residence and establishment.

If ratified by every member state, this protocol would allow Africans to work and live in any African country without needing a work permit. Rather disappointingly, however, only 32 out of 55 countries in Africa have signed it to date, and just four – Rwanda, Niger, São Tomé and Principe, and Mali – have ratified it.

The insistent resistance of many African governments to continent-wide free movement, coupled with their impractical, inefficient and at times inhumane attempts to police irregular migration point to a lack of understanding and appreciation of the considerable benefits of migration.

Indeed, migration – irregular or not – is beneficial not only to migrants and their kin but also to the communities hosting them.

I can attest to this fact because my family is a product of irregular migration.

In the early 1930s, my grandfather immigrated from Watsomba, a village in Mutasa District in Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe), to apartheid South Africa.

He left home armed with nothing but determination, a strong work ethic and the clothes on his back.

As a man of immensely modest means and inconsequential education, he entered South Africa at an illegal crossing point on the Limpopo River.

From there, he travelled southwards to Germiston, a small city in the East Rand region of Gauteng, known as South Africa’s economic hub. He found work as a messenger and settled down there.

After leaving home, my grandfather visited Watsomba once every five years or so. And whenever he did, my grandmother conceived a child – five in total. The income my grandfather earned in South Africa helped to feed, clothe and educate his children, including my father.

After 40 years of working abroad, my grandfather eventually parked his bicycle for good and returned home. But my grandfather’s return to Zimbabwe did not mark the end of our family’s relationship with South Africa. The decades my grandfather spent living and working in South Africa encouraged many of his descendants to also eventually make their way to the country.

His eldest grandson became a medical doctor and ultimately qualified as an orthopaedic surgeon. In the mid-1990s, he relocated to South Africa and worked in a local hospital in Limpopo province.

Later, his second eldest grandson, an economics graduate from Rhodes University, moved to South Africa and established several successful businesses that have generated employment for countless South Africans.

And his great-grandson graduated as a pharmacist from Rhodes University and found work in a government hospital in KwaZulu-Natal.

I can expound on the miscellaneous outcomes of my grandfather’s labour in his second home. But the most important aspect to my family’s migration story is this: In 1930, no one could have imagined that a humble undocumented migrant from a remote village in Zimbabwe could eventually give back to the land that helped him so much – and that he served so well.

My family’s story is just one of thousands or possibly millions.

Famous South Africans like Albert Luthuli, Dorothy Masuka and Jolidee Matongo came from immigrant families.

And in 2020, award-winning rapper, businessman and boxer Cassper Nyovest revealed that his grandfather had walked from Malawi to settle in Potchefstroom, North West province.

This is not about South Africa though.

This is about Africa’s catastrophic political inertia.

Every year across Africa, tens of thousands of honest, hard-working people like my grandfather are forced to leave their home country to escape war, political instability, climate change, bad governance or poverty and build themselves a new life in another African country. Due to circumstances outside their control, many of these people are undocumented. They face hostility from authorities and struggle to live their lives with dignity, let alone contribute to their new communities.

This is a massive, unnecessary loss not only for these migrants and their families but also their adopted countries and the wider continent.

For the benefit of Africa and Africans, so-called “illegal” immigrants must be swiftly recognised, documented and protected from the immeasurable dangers of economic and sexual exploitation, discrimination and organised xenophobia.

Only 3 percent of the African population live outside their home countries, so this is not an impossible task.

Last year, despite investing billions of dollars in high-tech surveillance technology, border infrastructure, and land and sea patrols, the United States and European Union both experienced exponential increases in irregular migration.

Africa’s leaders should learn from these failures and accept that in the absence of legal migration pathways accessible to all vulnerable people, including economic migrants, irregular migration cannot be regulated or expunged successfully.

They must avoid politicising irregular migration and instead implement policies that recognise and render useful African predisposition to migrate in both fair and hard times.

In 1963, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s founding president, said, “The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart.”

Sadly, it will take time to unite Africa in practice and establish a visa-free continent. In the meantime, the African Union must move to protect lives and take steps to enable unrestrained migration on a provisional basis.

With adequate political will, Africa is well positioned to manage migration in a secure, orderly and humane manner.

No African should ever have to die in search of a decent life in Africa.

It is high time Africa demolishes its colonial borders.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.