Back to DOCUMENTS or HOME
Ordinary People Living with Extraordinary Pressures
"People here don't like refugees and they call us amakwerekwere1. Even the authorities are not concerned for us and are deciding our status rather arbitrarily. To tell the truth; integration here is not such an easy thing. The authorities should be the first ones to defend and plead for us. I don't think there will be any change for refugees in this country. If so, the only remaining solution would be for us to resettle in another country."2
- Anonymous Angolan Refugee
These words echo the plight of many refugees in South Africa. Seeking security away from the violence and persecution in their countries of origin, many refugees from other African countries find instead hostility and hardship in South Africa. To be mistreated in the face of despair is heartrending for the refugee in this context, but it is even more tragic for the South African who contributes to this situation. It is barely a decade since apartheid's swan song and already we are culpable of grave inhumanity towards fellow Africans. Our xenophobic attitudes towards black foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers, is born from intolerance of those we perceive as 'other' and reflects our inability to forge a dignified and constructive relationship with the rest of Africa. What we do to refugees is an indication of our inability to break with the colonialist thinking of the past and find our true home in Africa.
This article outlines some of the harsh conditions and conflicts which refugees live with in South Africa. Referring to our work and contact (as the Centre for Conflict Resolution) with local refugees in the Western Cape, we hope to contribute to an understanding of refugees as we encounter them - courageous people with a strong desire to be active role-players in their own lives, as opposed to the common misperception of refugees as helpless parasites expecting others to provide their means of survival. In doing so, we hope to awaken South Africans to the moral obligation owed to refugees as a result of our own history.
What does it mean to be a refugee? According to Article 1 of the 1951 United Nations Convention on the status of Refugees, the term "refugee" applies to any person who:
Owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
In ordinary language, "a refugee is someone who has been compelled to abandon his home".3 Definitions generally tend to emphasise the "victimization" by events "for which, at least as an individual, [the refugee] cannot be held responsible".4 The image created of the refugee is hence one of overwhelming helplessness and lack of agency (power to influence one's destiny or life). To add a different spin to things, what is most striking about the above definition, is the issue of the refugee being forced to flee because of holding a "political opinion". An asylum seeker from Nigeria provided useful commentary in this regard, as he linked his current life in South Africa with his old and future (waiting) life in his country of origin. He observed that civil society in Nigeria is not as organized as it could be, with one dominating structure that controls everything; in such a context views of ordinary citizens are ignored. In his view, the skills from civil society learnt in South Africa, including conflict resolution skills, will assist in the actual reconstruction and nation building process via his contribution when he returns to Nigeria.5 It is clear from the above communication that contrary to common belief, refugees see themselves as political role-players both as refugees and as people waiting to return to their home countries.
Furthermore, fears for physical safety often make leaving the only solution to stay alive. Likewise those refugees who become displaced as a result of violent conflicts and wars also flee to survive. In recognizing their choice of leaving to stay alive (as opposed to staying and facing being killed), we must also see the significant exercising of a will to influence one's own destiny. Even in the face of the extreme poverty and suffering which comes from leaving behind home and things familiar, there is an inherent political act in choosing an option other than war and death.
Refugees in Cape Town experience daily conflicts at two levels - conflict within the refugee population itself, and conflicts between refugees and the local population. Conflicts between groups of refugees of different nationalities occur mainly as a result of competition over limited resources, mutual mistrust, and prejudice stemming from the past. This often results in confrontations that can also become particularly intense as political conflict in the countries of origin escalate. The situation is further compounded by hardships they experience as refugees, such as poverty, xenophobia and loss of family and friendship support networks.
Conflicts also occur within the refugee family unit and mostly centre on power issues when traditions practised in the country of origin are impacted on by dislocation. For example, the South African Constitution promotes gender equality at various political, social and economic levels. Often, tensions arise where women are concerned, as the newfound gender equality laws conflict with expectations for refugee women to adhere to the traditional roles assigned to them in the country of origin. Women, who were often more economically dependant on men in the family are faced with no alternative but to work in order to support their families in South Africa. The resulting economic independence of the women (wives, daughters, and sisters) often proves difficult for husbands, fathers, and brothers to accept, as the improved economic viability of women in the family is seen as a challenge to their traditional male power as sole breadwinner or main providers for the family.
Xenophobia, a fear of foreigners, often stemming from ignorance, and resulting in alienation of those targeted, is a serious concern for refugees in the Western Cape and indeed all over South Africa. Many locals view refugees as economic parasites. This negative perception is 'validated' in that refugees do compete with locals for resources and jobs, which are in scarce supply for the majority of South Africa's poor.
Reports of refugees thrown off moving trains, attacked and told to go back home abound in the media. It appears that negative public attitudes towards refugees are reinforced by state officials' attitudes. Refugees have not received much support from state institutions regarding basic security needs and proper integration for living in South Africa. Many refugees allege that the South African police fail to respond to requests for assistance, particularly when they report criminal assaults.
Refugees experience further difficulties with the Department of Home Affairs. The South African Refugee Act of 1998 is meant to regulate the entry of refugees into the country. One of the requirements of the Act is that refugees renew their permits every three months. To do this, refugees have to wait in long queues at Home Affairs, with only a few applications per day being successfully processed. Often, they have to take an entire day (or more) from work, which jeopardizes their jobs, as employers do not always understand the reasons for their absence from work. Older and sick refugees often suffer from fatigue and leave without renewing their permits, placing them in a precarious position with the law. It appears that this difficulty in obtaining permits is largely due to a huge capacity problem in Home Affairs.
A similar problem relating to a lack (or reluctance) of services for refugees is experienced at state hospitals. Refugees wait in queues all day for treatment, and are often told at the end of the day that they have to return the next day. They relate stories of inefficient service rendering by the state and often feel that they are discriminated against by health workers who push them to the back of the queue.
The situation at public schools appears slightly more positive. In the past, refugees together with all other foreigners had to pay higher school fees than locals. The Cape Town Refugee Forum (CTRF)6 initiated and facilitated discussions with various educational institutions in this regard. These talks led to effective changes in the policy and refugees (no longer regarded as foreigners) now pay the same school fees as locals.
In 1999 the CTRF, following a series of consultative meetings with local refugee communities, decided to find a sustainable way to address more effectively the various conflicts refugees encounter in the Western Cape. Members approached CCR for training in mediation skills, which they felt were crucial for self-empowerment purposes.7 The main goal was to link this development effort with current initiatives to ensure adequate protection and to promote peaceful conditions locally until repatriation to their own countries occurred. They CTRF sees conflict management as the best way to promote both their rights and their security as refugees.
Conflict resolution training does not only capacitate refugees in using conflict resolution skills but further grants them opportunities to clarify their rights. Their awareness of their rights could possibly lead to a de-escalation of conflict relating to human rights violations where they are concerned. CCR's training stresses the importance of being able to identify the nature of a conflict before attempting to make an intervention. Examining the history of a conflict while linking it to violations of human rights helps in determining the most effective intervention strategy.
CTRF members who participated in the workshop now use basic conflict resolution skills to manage conflicts when they occur within the refugee community of the Western Cape. For example, in a follow up interview, a participant revealed that CTRF members used basic communication skills learnt at the workshop to clear up misinformation regarding a resettlement issue that had led to conflict within the Burundi refugee community. Although the misunderstanding was settled, they are still unsure whether the under currents have been cleared up.8
On a similar note, they have attempted to mediate a conflict among Somali refugees, but have failed as the nature of the ethnicity problem of this group is far too complicated. This suggests a need for more advanced skills training in conflict resolution for them to effectively deal with complex conflicts. Discussions with the CTRF indicate that conflicts within the refugee community are mostly characterized by ethnic challenges relating to political tensions experienced in the country of origin. A typical example of this is the Somali community, which has about 15 tribes living in the Western Cape. The tribes blames each other for having had to flee Somalia.
The Angolan Community is split into two factions - refugees and immigrants. The refugees blame the immigrants, who are often children of elites studying in South Africa, for having caused the civil war which resulted in their having had to flee Angola.9
In 1997, the CTRF ran a survey which revealed that 95% of refugees want to go back home.10 Training in conflict resolution is hence useful for reasons other than just capacity building for refugees. Such training will also be useful in terms of building and reconstructing countries of origin when these skills are applied in community building by refugees who are repatriated. Moreover, conflict management skills can also become a means of contributing towards the redevelopment of the host community. The CTRF hopes that the skills acquired for conflict resolution will eventually enhance their capacity to prevent xenophobic motivated conflict in South Africa.
Refugees in the Western Cape see conflict management as the best way to promote both their rights and their security as refugees
Our own past should help us better understand our obligations to refugees. Apartheid forced many South Africans to seek refuge in neighboring countries. They left not only because of dissatisfaction with being politically and economically marginalized or fear of state violence, but also because they were prepared to 'fight the fight' of the liberation struggle that would lead to South Africa becoming a democracy.
Most states in Africa provided safe havens for South African refugees and exiles, at times with tremendous costs to themselves. Mozambique, for example, had just experienced a large-scale civil war to gain independence from Portugal and was hardly in any financial position to support the influx of refugees from South Africa, but it did receive them and provided whatever assistance it could. It is a tragic irony that when Mozambicans sought refuge in South Africa to escape the civil war between Frelimo and Renamo in the 1980s and early 1990s, they were often met with reluctance and hostility by ordinary South Africans.
Vincent Williams (see pp. 9 - 11) refers to South Africa's commitment to the protection and promotion of refugee rights in terms of new policy, legislation and the adoption of the various international Refugee Conventions. However, these are not the only reasons why we should protect and promote the rights of refugees in South Africa. We have a moral and reciprocal obligation to our African neighbors. International pressure (with most of Africa's support) applied to Apartheid South Africa, was instrumental in attaining our current system of democracy, under which we now prosper as citizens with more opportunities for political, social and economic advancement. Similarly, refugees choose to leave because conditions in their own home countries deteriorate to the extent that it becomes unbearable for them to remain there. Moreover, many choose to leave because they are determined to transform their societies into democratic systems of government, and their leaving is often a sign of their refusal to accept the present political conditions. Refugees are not economic or political threats but active role-players in their countries' transitional processes.
The time has come for us to actively help our neighbors in their own struggles for liberation and democratic systems of government. Refugee rights are human rights. In respecting the rights of refugees, we relay a broader message to the rest of the world - that we will not tolerate the abuse of rights in Africa. It is this kind of civil pressure that Africa needs to help rebuild its pride and strength as a continent. It is our ordinary, daily attitudes at grassroots levels that are often the most potent form of struggle we can wage against those who abuse power and human rights, which leads to the suffering of millions of our brothers and sisters on the continent.
At the time of writing, Pravashini Naicker worked as a trainer with the Human Rights and Conflict Management Programme at CCR. She is now a researcher at Parliament. Roshila Nair is Editor of Track Two and Publications Officer at CCR.
Back to DOCUMENTS or HOME