South Africa's plan to repatriate thousands of foreign black workers has met stiff opposition from the country's mining sector -- opposition that is likely to prevent implementation of the plan any time soon. The tussle over the repatriation plan indicates the mounting concern of both government and industry over South Africa's rising unemployment. Pretoria fears rising joblessness is exacerbating black unrest. This has prompted the government to think seriously about sending home foreign black workers in order to open up more jobs for local residents.
The mining industry is equally concerned about South Africa's economy and its impact on black unrest. But the mining companies fear repatriation would aggravate rather than alleviate the nation's economic crisis by disrupting gold production and provoking a strong international reaction.
The government's decision to start repatriating foreign black workers was reportedly taken last Friday. It was then communicated to the Chamber of Mines, which represents the major mining companies and is the major employer of lawfully employed foreign black workers.
The news was leaked to the Johannesburg newspaper, Business Day, which prominently published the plans, making them a national and international issue.
The Chamber, which employs about 80 percent of the 350,000 legally employed foreign workers, quickly moved to the forefront of the controversy by publicly outlining its opposition to repatriation.
``The Chamber has already impressed very strongly on the government its opposition to enforced repatriations,'' its president, Clive Knobbs, said. ``The backlash would be horrific, not only in economic terms but in damage to the confidence in the entire South African mining industry. . . . Credibility would suffer. There would be serious implications at national and international levels.''
Disclosure of the repatriation plan and the Chamber's opposition to it, drew a statement from Minister of Manpower P. T. du Plessis. He denied there were plans to ``summarily repatriate large numbers of foreign workers.'' But he conceded that ``contingency planning'' for repatriation was an essential part of government strategy for dealing with rising unemployment caused by international economic sanctions against South Africa. Mr. du Plessis did not deny that the decision on the plan had been taken. He
did, however, aver that the contingency plan was not a retaliatory move.
The discreet, almost clandestine nature of the decision to begin repatriation, is testimony that the South African government's motive is to protect the economy from further damage, analysts say. If the motive was to hammer home a lesson to the country's neigbors and the pro-sanctions lobby in the West, the moves would have been visibly signalled and accompanied by propaganda.
Several government ministers have pinpointed unemployment as a cause of the rebellion in the black townships and stressed the importance of reducing it as one of the steps that has to be taken to bring the revolt to an end.
Recently $240 million was allocated to alleviate unemployment problems. But with as many as 3 million unemployed blacks, the prospects for improvement are bleak, observers here say. Reportedly, of the 1.5 million foreign workers in the country, only 350,000 are legally at work.
But the mining industry clearly felt that the cure of repatriation was worse than the malady of recession and growing unemployment.
Another factor in the mining industry's calculations was the National Union of Mineworkers, South Africa's largest black trade union. It has threatened to call a national strike if foreign workers are repatriated. A large proportion of the union's 150,000 members are drawn from migrant workers, particularly the highly skilled miners from the tiny kingdom of Lesotho.