Wednesday, 1 August 2018

‘Stealth’ and re-politicisation: The limits of ‘knowledge-brokering’ as a model to influence migration policy making in South Africa

By Kudakwashe P Vanyoro

South Africa is currently experiencing mixed migration flows from different parts of the Southern African region. For example, Zimbabweans moving into South Africa encounter a double whammy of political displacement and labour migration (economically induced displacement). For this group of people, protections are far and few between. They are forced to choose between the asylum system, which, by design, is bureaucratically inefficient, and the labour migration system, which, among other things is driven by all sorts of xenophobic discourses.

They are met with an immigration and refugee regime that casts a huge net to undermine all sorts of their potential socio-economic and political agency. Just as it is hard to neatly reduce their mobility to any singular policy protection (labour migration or refugee regime), since they are not legally seen by the state as genuine asylum seekers but economic refugees, the policies themselves are juggled to conflate their concerns and needs and undermine their protection. One needs to only look at the Trafficking in Persons Act, Amendment to the Refugees Act and White Paper on International Migration. The three dance together as it were; which even makes it more practically sensible for us to speak of a kind of mobility policy/governance regime.

In other words, their precarity is not experienced within fixed ontological categories; but within multiple, intersecting policy sytems. Indeed, there is a concerted political will by the state to see anti-immigration policies pass, regardless of which policy/governance regime one would like to neatly fit these migrants into.

What does this all mean for doing research uptake and pursuing evidence-based policies through activism and advocacy? Here I will highlight my suggestions that explicitly draw on the work I have published on the issues of ‘unpopular causes’ in South Africa with the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium; and the notion of repoliticising migration narratives I published with colleagues in a Globalisations Special Issue.

Some have insisted on the perrenial need to improve the capacity of policymakers to use evidence and bridge the science-policy interface gap to improve relations between researchers and policymakers, knowledge brokering and capacity building. Yet we know that the reason for the marginalisation of evidence in South Africa is purely philosophical; policymakers expediently choose what version of reality/truth they are willing to accept. Consistent with the knowledge brokering model, albeit in a counterintutitive manner, they form alliances and relationships with their own tribe of researchers pursuing similar interests – a different kind of rationality and political will - which is expedient for them in dealing with ‘unpopular causes’ en masse.

For those of us concerned with influencing policy through the right kinds of evidence, acknowledging this political reality animates space to critically debate what approaches are best and pragmatically suited to improve and sustain activism and research uptake on these kinds of issues.

I would argue that, evidence-based activism for migrants’ right in South Africa is hamstrung by the pathologisation of migration as a whole in policymaking, which has lead to the dominance of ‘alternative facts’ proliferated by actors who are tied together through ‘communities of faith’ that hold steadfast to claims that despite a lack of evidence migration is an extensive problem in South Africa. Therefore, there are limits to the notion of bridging the science-policy gap through knowledge-brokering, at least in the way it has been propounded this far. First, by insisting on notions of capacity building, it works from an inherent assumption that (South) African policymakers lack the capacity to make decisions that are ostensibly rational; since, after all, ‘that is Africa’s perrenial problem’. Second, if anything, the very existence of shoddy relations between science and policy is the reason we find ourselves in this place, that is fraught with the use of problematic bad data in policymaking. There is a sect of science and civil society that has been coopted or ‘gone to bed’ with policymaking as it were.

So why should we still insist on bringing these two worlds together, and in what ways?

With scarce, limited resources, I am less concerned with bringing the worlds of policy and science together in our Southern contexts because I am not convinced this is where we should be channelling our efforts. I am not alone in this endeavour. Migrating out of Poverty research done by the African Centre for Migration & Society in South Africa found that there is little value in even targeting national policies because the local level is where real, actionable change is more likely to happen.

International treaties and national policy frameworks may regulate migration, but it is ultimately a local government matter. After all, ‘At the end of the day, all migrants live in municipalities’. I also speak for others like Kihato and Landau when I say the full protection of migrants and refugees in South Africa demands a shift in both approach and language by activists and researchers. Regarding language, elsewhere, we have argued for the need to re-politicise the language and narratives of migration; to essentially deneutralise and revitalise them. Likewise, in terms of approach, the full protection of migrants and refugees requires activists and researchers to promote rights indirectly to avoid political ire and political backlash through creating ‘back-routes’ and capitalising on ‘windows of opportunity’. Through this kind of stealth advocacy, perhaps activists and researchers ‘may avoid complex and contentious public battles over rights’, instead focusing on building solidarities with ‘local’ constituencies facing similar marginalization.