Unwanted – African immigrants in South Africa

Stop blaming immigrants
Stop blaming immigrants ( © Flickr)

Since the end of apartheid a decade ago, growing numbers of refugees from across Africa have been heading to the continent’s richest and most industrialised country. No one knows how many African immigrants have settled illegally in South Africa. Estimates vary from 2 to 10 million people…that’s anywhere from 5 to 20% of South Africa’s population. The immigrants are fleeing war or persecution or they’re simply in search of a better life. But few of them have felt welcomed by South Africans. 

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: June 9, 2004


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Unwanted: African immigrants in South Africa”. The programme is presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Xenophobia, I’m afraid, is a reflection of the really desperate circumstances which affect very poor people living on the fringes of city life all over South Africa.

He said, ‘go back because you’re here to steal our jobs’. And I cried.

Anyone who is not South African is either illegal or is committing a crime or is bringing HIV/AIDS.

He said to me, ‘you have no rights. I’m the boss here’. Then he started beating me up.

If something happens to a South African, it’s a statistic. But if something happens to a foreigner, it’s xenophobia.

Since the end of apartheid a decade ago, growing numbers of refugees from across Africa have been heading to the continent’s richest and most industrialised country. No one knows how many African immigrants have settled illegally in South Africa. Estimates vary from 2 to 10 million people…that’s anywhere from 5 to 20% of South Africa’s population. The immigrants are fleeing war or persecution or they’re simply in search of a better life. They come from all over the continent: from nearby countries such as Zimbabwe and Angola, but also from further afield, like the Great Lakes region, the Horn of Africa and even West Africa. It may sound hard to believe, says Bea Abrahams of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, but many of the immigrants come on foot, walking for weeks or even months.

I’m aware of people having crossed some of the most dangerous rivers in little canoes…in some instances, crocodile-infested rivers. I’ve personally seen people coming into South Africa with their bodies swollen up because of perhaps weeks of malnourishment, weeks of just tiredness, absolute tiredness. We did a study in 2002. We found that many of them are forced to negotiate borders in return for sexual favours. And that happens to both males and females. Many of them talk about it as if it’s a norm. In order to cross from one country to the next, you either have to bribe immigration officials and in more extreme cases, they just demand sexual favours and that’s how you get from the one place to the next.

Unlike in many countries, there are no refugee camps in South Africa. Once immigrants arrive, they must apply for asylum at the Department of Home Affairs. It’s a long, frustrating process, and many immigrants eventually turn to groups such as Lawyers for Human Rights for help in processing their request.

While their asylum request is being processed, immigrants are barred from working. Under South African law, the asylum-seekers should receive a response within six months, says Joyce Tlou of the National Consortium for Refugee Affairs.

Joyce Tlou, National Consortium for Refugee Affairs
Joyce Tlou (© Eric Beauchemin)

In practice, however, the Department of Home Affairs has not met that target of determining a claim within six months. People can go on for years without them knowing what their status is. So within that frame of two years or more, a person is still not allowed to work because he is still technically an asylum-seeker. My understanding is that when that condition was put in, it was actually to deter so-called bogus asylum-seekers. The thinking was that genuine refugees would somehow manage, and they would be able to obtain assistance from the non-governmental organisations and the faith-based organisations, the churches, the mosques. EB: But still, how do they survive during those first six months because even if they were to receive clothing or food from churches or mosques or other non-governmental organisations, they still have to sleep somewhere. They still have to live somewhere. Yes, those are actually the critical questions. I think there’s play at being an ostrich. Somebody puts their head in the sand and hopes for the best that the refugees can get by.

There are great debates going on at the moment about how we should define our immigration policies.

Tom Lodge is a professor of political studies at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.

There’s an extremely unpleasant detention camp which is actually run by a private company which appears to be owned by a group of women closely connected with ANC leaders. But there’s another extremely unpleasant camp where illegal immigrants are rounded up, badly treated before being dispatched across South Africa’s borders. The existence of such a camp suggests that xenophobic attitudes or attitudes that are hostile to foreigners go a fair way up the political hierarchy. To be fair, the official public discourse about Africa is one that adopts a welcoming attitude to other Africans and other African cultures. And to their credit, some political leaders have gone on record condemning xenophobia.

According to official figures, there are only 24,000 refugees in South Africa. People who obtain refugee status must renew their permit every two years, and often the renewal process can be very long, says Patrick Bilali, a Burundian who’s been recognised as a refugee.

It takes time. For myself to renew it for a second time, it took like two other years. At the meantime, I was given like the prohibited person paper. I couldn’t do any job. I couldn’t even withdraw my money in the bank because of that paper. I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t do any official work because I don’t have any identity. So it’s really embarrassing, and no one likes it. And I don’t know what it is applied in South Africa. Because if you are a refugee already, I don’t think you have to renew your refugee status for two years. It must be a permanent so that you know, if I’m staying here or not. That’s why it’s difficult for people to invest in this country because I know after two years, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

But under South African law, even a decade after immigrants arrive, the authorities can decide that the situation in the home country has become stable enough for them to return. This constant uncertainty, though, is the least of most immigrants’ worries. For them, xenophobia is a far more pressing issue.

In ‘97, the time I arrived here in South Africa, I met a man on the road where I was doing car guard, and he asked me why I’m here. He said ‘go back because you’re here to steal our jobs’. And I cried.

Solange Mukamana, a Rwandan refugee
Solange Mukamana (© Eric Beauchemin)

Solange Mukamana comes from Rwanda. She hasn’t only experienced rejection on the streets and from the Department of Home Affairs. Xenophobia is rife throughout South African society, she says, even in hospitals. Solange still shudders when she recalls how she was treated by a nurse when she went to give birth.

The way she treated me. Very very bad. She wanted to inject water inside my body. She said she wanted to clean inside. It’s dirty. And I started saying, oh sister, what are you doing to me? Please! I touched her. She said don’t touch me, makwerekwere! I was dying because of that xenophobia.

I think what’s very perturbing is that xenophobia expresses itself in a very racial nature in South Africa. And given our past history of racial apartheid, it’s really disturbing.

Abeeda Bhanjee is a legal counsellor for refugees at the Law Clinic of Witwatersrand University.

A white foreigner can live in the country for up to 10 or 15 years and nobody is going to check a permit, whereas, if you’re black, you’re more likely to be picked up on a daily basis. Black officials often say we identify makwerekweres, which is the derogatory word used for foreigners, by their black skin. They mean that South African blacks have a brown colour in skin and African blacks from Sudan, Uganda and the rest of Africa have a much darker skin tone. And they openly and blatantly say that. It’s actually played out in a very funny way with dark South Africans have been deported to Lesotho and Swaziland and other countries, where they feel that they are not South African because of their skin colour.

Paul had been able to deal with this xenophobia since he arrived in South Africa 7 years ago. A few days ago, the life of this 37-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo was turned upside down. His wife had tried to withdraw money from an ATM in Pretoria, and the machine had swallowed her bank card. Paul went to assist his wife, but soon he found that bystanders and a group of Indians who owned a nearby shop were accusing both him and his wife of trying to steal money.

Then suddenly I saw around 10 or 15 Indians around me. They all started beating me seriously, very seriously. Whoever will come will give me a fist. Then I tell you, I could have died at that time because whoever was hitting at the head and kicking me because I was lying down. And actually the police car came, and when I saw them, I tried to run towards them, say, ‘I will die here, please! Can you save me?’ But they didn’t listen to me. They just locked me up. Actually I was in deep pain and bleeding, bleeding from the mouth and I was really in pain. EB: Do you think this happened to you because you’re black or because you are a foreigner? I know first because I’m black, and as soon as they noticed that I was a foreigner, that was worse because they knew I wouldn’t be protected in any way.

Paul still had bandages on his face and body. The attack was so savage and unexpected and the police’s response so inadequate that Paul and his wife have decided to leave South Africa. For human rights activists, the most disturbing aspect of xenophobic incidents is that they seem to be condoned by law enforcement agents. 3 years ago, for instance, there was an infamous incident in which South African police used illegal Mozambican immigrants as live bait to train dogs how to capture criminals. The incident was recorded on video, and the police officers involved were eventually prosecuted, but most cases of xenophobia simply go unpunished.

Over the past four years, we’ve had a high amount of foreigners thrown off trains and foreigners having acid thrown onto their faces. Just before September 11th happened, we had a community of Somalis who were trying to integrate into a black township in Port Elizabeth. And what happened is that in a one-day xenophobic incident, the black community razed over 60 Somali homes and businesses to the ground. It doesn’t take a minute to burn one home to the ground. It takes a fairly long time. They looted the whole community, the Somali community’s belongings. They stole what they wanted and they burnt the houses and shops to the ground. What was very perturbing about that incident is that there’s a community police station within that township and there were policemen on duty who turned a blind eye to this incident.

A number of explanations have been put forward for the xenophobia which exists in today’s South Africa, including the nation’s apartheid past.

I think South Africans are the only people that have never really suffered on behalf of any other people or any other nation. The neighbouring countries, the Frontline States, as well as as far away as Tanzania, people were sheltering South Africans away from the scourge of apartheid, and the Frontline States, they received quite a heavy hitting. Buildings were bombed. People were killed. People were maimed, due to their support for the liberation struggle for South Africa. And yet, there has never been sort of that kind of hosting by South Africa before now for the other African nations.

South Africans don’t think of themselves as the rest of Africa. You have to remember that when you are a refugee, you’re not allowed to be politically active in a violent against your government. So a lot of South Africans who fled their government during apartheid never accrued the term refugee to themselves. They were seen as hosts or guests of African governments, and they were seen as exiles but not as refugees. So there’s little identification with the current crises in Africa.

If you look at our history, you will begin to understand that we were a particularly isolated people. There was very little experience and appreciation of the commonness that we have with the rest of the African continent. And so there’s a reluctance to engage with people coming from other parts.

We’ve always been a society divided in terms of us and them ideology. And post-apartheid, our nation-building process is exactly around that. It’s still an us and them process. It’s an inclusive process for South African citizens and an exclusive process for non-citizens. We see people who are black and foreigners as people who steal our women. We have a lot of stereotypes.

I think there was a momentous thrust towards promoting this diversity and this oneness to forgive and forget about the wrongs of the past and get on with the future. And that has left others by the wayside. And that other is actually the foreigner as one has to have a scapegoat, and in this case, it happens to be the foreigners.

I think what is very striking about xenophobia in South Africa is that over the years, all the research seems to point to the fact that it is directed at black foreigners. It is very, very, very seldom that one hears of similar incidents of either exclusion or open discrimination or violence being meted against white foreigners.

Me, I always tell people, South Africans basically are not xenophobic. It’s the circumstances that makes them xenophobic.

Fana Msomi is a former South African exile. He now works with refugees in the port city of Durban.

I always say to them, you came at the wrong time. Previously we had people here like Hastings Banda, the former president of Malawi. We had Samora Machel in the mines before they went to England to get educated, before they were presidents. We had a lot of people from Malawi in the mines and Mozambicans and Zimbabweans. People didn’t bother them. They had work. I always make this analogy that South Africans in 1994 are like a man who’s been hungry in a room without food. And suddenly he’s given a plate of food. And there’s a knock at the door. He says, OK, come, let’s share. And then another knock and he says fine. Third knock, fourth knock, he says, no, this is too much. You know, South Africans had this notion that after freedom, we were going to get lots of jobs. We are going to get houses. We are going to get cars. And suddenly there were other people that were coming in and there were no jobs.

Up to 40% of South Africans are unemployed. The vast majority of them are poor, uneducated blacks who depend on selling and trading in the streets to survive. Immigrants from the north are seen as a direct threat to their livelihoods, but they shouldn’t be, says Bea Abrahams.

I think you can go anywhere in the street in South Africa and you will find refugees being forced to sell. And that’s really, really sad. If we had a greater understanding of the economic contribution that refugees could bring I think we would have a completely different situation. We completed a study in Cape Town in ’96 and I believe the demographics aren’t significantly different now to what they were then. But in that study we found that more than 80% of the refugee population in South Africa have a minimum of 12 years schooling. Between 30 and 40% have either a first degree or a Master’s.

Solange’s husband is a typical example. He graduated with a Master’s degree in economics from a university in Rwanda, but he was unable to find any work. So he decided to get a degree in South Africa.

Here they gave him the equivalent of O levels. EB: O levels? Yes, O levels. In 2001, he decided to go to university. Now he’s got Master’s. But he has no job, till now. He used to buy a job mail newspaper to look for a job, but they don’t even answer him. One time he had a friend of him at university. He said, ‘some people have offered me a job. Can you come take it because I’ve got mine’. And he was thinking, now it’s final. I’m going to have a job. He sent them a CV. Those people didn’t come to him, telling him that we need a work permit or this or this. They went to the guy and said, ‘no, your friend is not good. He’s a foreigner’.

Barber "shop" on a Durban street
Barber “shop” on a Durban street

Many foreign immigrants guard cars. Another popular profession is hair-dressing. There are dozens of stalls along the side of the road in a busy section of downtown Durban. To provide some privacy, the stalls are draped in tarpaulin. On the outside there are cloth posters with bright, colourful hand-made paintings of men with fancy haircuts. Inside, electric razors are hooked up to car batteries which also power a sophisticated sound system. Barbers like Chima Chima Nomashaka even have a mirror and a comfortable plastic chair for their customers.

Chima Chima Nomashaka at work on the street
Chima Chima Nomashaka (© Eric Beauchemin)

I’m from DRC Congo. EB: How long have you been here in South Africa? 6 years full now. EB: Why did you come to South Africa? Because of the war. EB: What were you doing in DRC? I was a teacher in my country, a primary teacher. EB: And now you’re a barber. Why are you a barber? I’m a barber because no jobs…to survive just. EB: You wouldn’t be able to get a normal job? I’ve got no paper to allow me…I’ve got no ID book. EB: Is the business good? This business is good. Because of this I’m living.

Business is not so good a block away. Like most native Zulu roadside barbers, Michael’s stall lacks many of the accoutrements that the foreigners have. He still even uses manual clippers. He’s been cutting hair for the past 10 years, but since the arrival of the foreigners, customers have been few and far between.

Michael (© Eric Beauchemin)

The business is no longer going as before now. EB: How has it changed? ’98, ’99 it started to go down because of the people coming from outside countries as well. EB: Did you lose a lot of customers? Yeah. EB: Did people tell you why they were going to get their hair cut from these people rather than coming to you? So, there’s no reason that they are giving. EB: How do you feel about these refugees? I don’t feel right because of this competition. EB: But what do you think of them? Do you think that they’re bad people? Do you think they should be sent back? Yes, I think they better just be sent back because they’re having a competition and this is our country. This is our land. Now they’d better just be sent back. EB: Why don’t you try to copy some of the things that they’re doing? They have nice stalls. They have electrical equipment. Why don’t you try to do some of the same things? I didn’t think of that. Now it’s interesting to know about it, yeah.

If you were to see a traditional Zulu hair-dresser, not much client rapport. Fairly brutal and basic in terms of the service you’re getting, compared to these guys who will actually come in with a far better sense of customer care, cosmetics, etc., etc., and then a whole book of styles that you could actually have in terms of hair-dressing.

Richard Dobson heads the Durban inner city regeneration programme, which has been working closely with informal traders, both nationals and foreigners.

There’s some people who come down here, hugely enterprising. It’s unbelievable. On the streets are African curious, amusing ones: giraffes that stand 3 metres tall and that sort of thing. Now those we now discover are arriving into the country generally unfinished. The basic forms are prepared, but in a lot of the sort of art buildings and sort of ghetto parts of the city, so-called foreigners are employing local people to actually finish off those sculptures. And I just think it’s quite amusing how it’s in fact external people who are creating employment for local people to actually create those artifacts.

Not everyone is amused. The president of the Durban Informal Traders Management Board, Emmanual Tlamini, is convinced that many of these foreigners are not true refugees, and he blames them for rising crime rates in the city.

Some of them now, they’re just dealing with illegal stuff like drugs. A lot of illegal things of which ending up now teaching our guys some sort of crime. There are some correct people which are here in South Africa to try to make a living. But there are those who came here with the intention destroying the country. Yeah. EB: Do you think that most of these foreigners are bad? No, I’m not saying all of them are bad. But the number, I can say 50-50 because the most they are bad. And then 50%, they’re doing the correct thing.

Not everyone has such a negative view of foreigners. In Albert Park, an exclusively white neighbourhood in Durban during the apartheid era, for instance, there are now to a wide variety of nationalities, including South Africans.

It’s quite an interesting neighbourhood because there are definitely Zulu people in there now who have learned to coexist with people from outside of the country. Clearly all phobias are diminished as soon as one is able to understand more. So some of the survivalists that we have on the streets – generally they are survivalists because of poor educational opportunity – will tend to be more reactionary. We have definitely got to be aware of how the world ticks and we can’t just carry on being in a little island.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, and organisations representing immigrants have been trying to create greater understanding among the general public. Since 1998, says UNHCR spokesperson Pumla Khulashe, they’ve been running the so-called Rollback Xenophobia campaign.

We are in contact with government departments and things like that to try and turn the negative perception if you want against actually employing refugees with qualifications, with genuine qualifications that is. It’s slowly changing but obviously it’s quite a process because you have South Africans competing for the same jobs as well, and I think naturally the South African government would want to employ its own before it would like outside. EB: Is xenophobia a problem within the government? I think it is. There are levels of ignorance, just downright ignorance, especially amongst staff, like receptionists and things like that. But then higher up in the chain, I think there is to a certain degree a resistance to giving jobs to non-nationals, if that job could be filled by a national.

In recent years, immigrants themselves have been trying to change the way they are perceived by South African society. One way has been through music.

Association for Refugee Women practicing
Association for Refugee Women practicing (© Eric Beauchemin)

Solange Mukamana and a group of other refugee women regularly organise performances of African music in and around Durban. The music has opened South Africans’ eyes to the rich cultural diversity that exists in the rest of the continent. It is also helping to create a more positive image of immigrants and help them break out of their isolation. The Association for Refugee Women was set up a few years ago after a Rwandan immigrant committed suicide.

He killed himself. But he left a note behind. He said ‘people, try to be together. Fight that loneliness because... The loneliness. Yeah loneliness. He was alone. He had nobody next to him to listen what his problem. And it’s because of the situation, the life that we are here in South Africa badly. Everybody is busy on his bread, on their bread. No one can say, that person is sick. Let’s go visit him because no time. He doesn’t know where he is going to stay tomorrow if he doesn’t have money for rent. And it’s for everybody. Then after that, what will happen to the wife? Let’s do something. Before we send the person to go to visit her, we heard also she died. We didn’t know what was wrong with her. And they left a child. He was around 6 years. After about 4 months the child also died. And the family is finished and nobody knows what was wrong in their family. That’s why we decided to form the organisation in a mind to be together.

Caroline Skinner, School of Development Studies at the University of Natal
Caroline Skinner (© Eric Beauchemin)

Attitudes have changed in recent years, but there’s still an enormous amount of fear and even downright hostility towards African immigrants, says Caroline Skinner of the School of Development Studies at the University of Natal.

I think what it stems from is the problems at home and also an economy that’s not growing. I think what’s happening is that the state is saying we have to prioritise our own people. The irony is that our big capital is moving into our neighbouring countries. So the main retailers are all in the big cities in our region, and yet we won’t allow their nationals to trade on our inner city streets.

Solange has lost hope that the situation will ever change. Not long ago, she decided that she and her family had no future in the Rainbow Nation. She decided to leave.

I tried. I can tell the truth. I tried to leave the country but because I had no legal papers like passport, they catch me. They sent me back inside South Africa because I told them I am a refugee in South Africa. Then, they sent me back. And even now, I wish I can leave South Africa because of…there is no progress in the refugees’ life. There is no progress. Now I don’t see where’s the future.

“Unwanted” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.