South Africa built a special hell for asylum seekers: Refugee Reception Offices

A report released yesterday in Johannesburg reveals “shocking levels of corruption and serial abuse” at South African refugee centers. Of the five Refugee Reception Offices, Marabastad, in Pretoria, wins the Most Corrupt Award … again. The report, while dismaying, is no shock.

According to the report’s introduction, “Established in 1998, South Africa’s asylum system was designed to identify those individuals in need of protection in accordance with the country’s international obligations and democratic character.” By 1998, the South African government had traded in the Reconstruction and Development Programme, or RDP, for the Growth, Employment and Redistribution, or GEAR, strategy, which traded any promise of social justice for something called “growth.” Asylum seekers and refugees didn’t fall into the GEAR strategy, and so by the time South Africa decided it was time for asylum, it was already too late: “The current state of affairs is the product of a deliberate government choice to avoid addressing fundamental issues in the asylum system.”

Here’s Marabastad in 2008: “Asylum applicants at Marabastad have taken to sleeping outside the office, in the hope that this will improve their chances of getting inside. There are regularly between eighty and three hundred people sleeping outside. At night armed criminals visit the site. Incidents of theft are common. There have been several reports of rape. There is no shelter in the vicinity of the office and people often endure rain and very cold conditions. Many women sleep with babies by their side. On some occasions the police have visited during the night and arrested asylum seekers or extorted them for bribes. Fights about places in the queue are common, sometimes degenerating into the throwing of bricks and stones and leading to several cases of hospitalisation. On at least one occasion metropolitan officials arrived in the morning to clear all temporary shelters, bedding, and belongings of people gathered outside the office.” In 2011, “the conditions at Marabastad … still are, to most objective onlookers, appalling.”

And now, in 2015, Marabastad is the most corrupt, and this in South Africa, which had one of the highest asylum and refugee rejection rates in the world last year, rejecting between 90% and 100% of all asylum applications processed from Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ghana, India, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Burundi and Uganda. South Africa is the land where all roads lead to rejection.

To the toxic brew of incompetence, underfunding, and xenophobic and sexist violence, yesterday’s report adds corruption. One has to pay to play, and many are the ways: pay to cross the border, move up the line, renew a permit, pay spurious fines, avoid arrest, and generally improve `service.’

Women figure in this variously. First, the researchers interviewed mostly men because there were more men than women outside the reception centers and because “women were generally less willing to participate.”

Second, in discussing the Department of Home Affairs, or DHA, tepid response to corruption, the report tells a story, “In July 2014, an asylum seeker told Lawyers for Human Rights that a refugee status determination officer (RSDO) at the Marabastad refugee reception office had asked her for R2500 in exchange for refugee status. LHR contacted the counter-corruption unit, which agreed to set up a sting operation.” What followed was a nightmare of bungling and general lack of concern on the part of the DHA, so that, in the end, all the weight falls on the most vulnerable and least able: “Asylum seekers must be willing to come forward, despite fear of reprisals, and must be able to provide … details. The DHA does not target the wider processes outside of these individual complaints.”

Finally, one asylum seeker in Cape Town reports: “People ask for money. Officials don’t help you or tell you what is happening. They play on their phones. Security guards ask for money but not openly. It is a previously made deal. Then they grab the people and take them to the front of the queue. Never women. People from Zim only get a one month extension and other people from other countries get 3 to 6 months.”

Never women.

 

(Photo Credit: Kristy Siegfried / IRIN)

Domestic workers Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat shake the world

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. In 2013, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it. Last November, the man was found guilty, and on Friday he heard his sentence.

The man was sentenced to two years house arrest, 70 hours of community service “in the service of Black women”, successful completion of various programs addressing substance abuse, prohibition from owning any firearms and from using any substances.

Gloria Kente was not in court on Friday, but her attorney said she was happy with the sentence.

As so often happens, the news coverage of this case focuses largely on the man. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers is not news. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers’ rights under the law is also not news. The news is that around the world, domestic workers are saying “NO!” to abuse. Around the world domestic workers are on the move, organizing, advocating, going to court and winning civil and criminal cases, organizing unions, consolidating power for domestic workers and for women workers generally. That’s the story.

In Hong Kong today, a court found that Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer had indeed abused her. Her employer was found guilty of criminal intimidation, grievous bodily harm and wage theft. Again, the story is not the employer, but rather Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s refusal to accept the veil of secrecy that enshrouds household labor. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih said “NO!” to the violence of like-one-of-the-family, and, instead, said “YES!” to workers’ right, women’s rights, migrants’ rights, humans’ rights, and every configuration thereof. As Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, after hearing the verdict: “To employers in Hong Kong, I hope they will start treating migrant workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves, because as human beings, we all have equal rights.”

In Lebanon, immigrant and migrant women domestic workers are organizing a union. In Pakistan domestic workers have formed their first trade union, partly as a response to increasing violence against domestic workers and partly as a response to the affirmative recognition of their combined rights and power. Last December, the Pakistan Workers Federation formed the Domestic Workers Trade Union. Of 235 members, 225 are women domestic workers. Sumaira Salamat, in Lahore, is a member: “It’s only in the last year-and-a-half that these women have finally realised the importance of what it means to become a united force. We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work.”

 

Everywhere, women domestic workers are on the move.

Remember that when you read about this court case or that decision and the abusive employer receives all or most of the attention. The days of employers owning history are over. Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat are shaking the world up. Remember their names.

 

(Photo Credit: drum.co.za) (Photo Credit: Philippe Lopez / Agence France – Press / Getty Images)

 

Women cleaners and domestic workers confront violence against women

From Hong Kong to Qatar to Greece to the United States, domestic workers and women cleaners are under attack. They are under attack because they are women. In South Africa this year, domestic workers and women cleaners have confronted the attack head on.

Delia Adonis works as a cleaner in a mall in Cape Town. Last month, Adonis saw five men attack a sixth. She called the police, who intervened. She then went to the parking lot, where the five men encircled her, knocked her to the ground, and beat her. Throughout the assault, the men used racist and sexist epithets.

Adonis called the police and laid charges on the five men. It turns out they’re UCT students. Adonis claims that the police came to her and offered her money to drop the case. The officer allegedly said that the men were afraid of being kicked out of school. Adonis rejected the offer, and all it represented: “I’m really angry about this. I’m traumatised and still in pain. These youngsters verbally abuse us every weekend, and now this? I’m a mother of six – how would they feel if someone beat up their mothers like that? There was so much blood pouring from my face I couldn’t see. When I washed my face. I just thought to myself: ‘Boys, you can run but I leave you in the hands of the Lord’.”

Cynthia Joni works as a domestic worker in Cape Town. One morning, Joni was walking to work, when a white man leapt out of his car, slapped and threw her to the ground. She screamed, and he drove away. He was later identified and charged. His `explanation’ was that he mistook Cynthia Joni for a sex worker and `snapped.’ To no one’s surprise, it turns out that Cynthia Joni is not the first woman he’s assaulted. Now others are coming forth.

While the toxic mix in both the physical violence and then the subsequent violence that passes for explanation are important, the women’s response is more important. Domestic workers, sex workers, women workers reject the violence and call on the State to address it … forcefully and immediately.

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. Last year, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with both assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it.

Today’s stories echo the past. Over six years ago, four white students at the University of the Free State videotaped their assault on five cleaners, Mothibedi Molete, Mankoe Phororo, Emmah Koko, Nkgapeng Adams and Sebuasengwe Ntlatseng. The video went viral, as did disgust, and the cleaners, four women and one man, fought back. This June, the five cleaners launched their own company.

Today, however, domestic workers and women cleaners are making demands on the State. Domestic workers and women cleaners reject the protectionism that would see them as a separate class in need of help. They are workers with rights, women with rights, and humans with rights. As women workers increasingly demand their civil, labor, and human rights be respected, they consolidate power. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust)

Love is all around

 

Love is all around

Love is all around
is my lyrical response
to a Vukani letter-writer
from out yonder KTC

Where is love
in the townships
is the question asked
(amidst partying and drinking
round our social grant days)

Love is all around
I declare as I ramble
in and about Site C Khayelitsha

A bustling Saturday morning
down Govan Mbeki Road
to the Whizz ICT Centre
for their Youth Centre Launch
and an end-user computer Graduation

(them a small light of hope
all about community sustainability
in a place overshadowed)

Love is all around (too)
at the Moses Mabhida Library
where I’ve been before
for a Reading Competition
(fall in love with learning
says a mural on their wall)

Love is all around
5 happy earthly hours I spend
(language notwithstanding)
as the Youth Centre is launched
and students joyously graduate

Love is all around

What stops you
from making it so too

 

“Where is love in the townships?” (Letters, Vukani community paper, October 30 2014)

 

(Photo Credit: Whizz ICT Centre)

One can ask the question

June Orsmond and students asking the questions

One can ask the question

One can ask the question
empowering young minds
as a 77-year-old is doing
at Lavender Hill High School
(outside of our ritual Days)

One can ask the question
why the white woman label
20-odd years in to a democracy
the media reports as such
(are they still group-thinking)

All the white I know
is the hoary-old ditty
A whiter shade of pale
a little-known collective noun
a whiteness of swans
(and the Beatles’ White Album)

I ask the question
from a non-racial rearing
enfolded by humanists
political educators teachers
civic-minded campaigners
(African) Marxists and Socialists
feminists and womynists too

(with Achebe and Ngugi
and Neruda and Brecht
they made their mark though
not with corporal punishment)

One can ask the question
with all the progressive battles
(no normal sport in an abnormal)
where has all the non-racialism gone
was it just a passing charade

One can ask the question
what seeds do we plant
as June Orsmond is doing
(the power of one person)
in Lavender Hill and elsewhere
in the ghetto of young minds

Marina da Gama grandmother June Orsmond’s work, in “The power of one” (Argus, July 2 2014), brings forth the question.

(Photo Credit: Cape Argus)

What Dembe, Mari, Masani, and Flavirina knew and what they learned

Dembe Ainebyona has suffered: State violence, mob violence, rape. Ainebyona is a 31-year-old lesbian, originally from Uganda, currently living in the Cape Town metropolitan area. In 2009, she applied for asylum status in South Africa. Unaware of South Africa’s liberal laws concerning LGBTQ people, Ainebyona hid her lesbian identity and hid the real reasons she had fled Uganda. She was denied asylum. Her appeal comes up in a few months.

This is not a story about Uganda. This is a story about South Africa and the reality of its so-called liberal laws as lived by LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers. It’s not a pretty story.

A recent report, Economic Justice: Employment and Housing Discrimination Against LGBTI Refugees and Asylum Seekers in South Africa, read against the account of Dembe Ainebyona, reveals a story, that of asylum seekers and refugees in the Cape Town area.

Why focus on Cape Town? Dembe Ainebyona lives there. It’s a global tourist as well as refugee destination. It’s a `model’ for neoliberal urban redevelopment.

And this: “In July 2012, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) closed its Cape Town RRO [Refugee Reception Office] and refused to accept any new requests for asylum at the location. The temporary shutdown was particularly problematic for undocumented LGBTI newcomers because it placed them at risk of detention and subsequent repatriation. In fact, the largest population of refugees and asylum seekers reside in Cape Town. To push back, PASSOP and other advocates protested outside the closed RRO. Another human rights organisation also challenged in court the legality of the RROs closing. In July 2012, the Western Cape High Court ordered the DHA to continue accepting new asylum applications until the court provided a final determination on the case, thereby providing new asylum seekers entering Cape Town interim relief. After months of rallies and public outcry spearheaded by PASSOP, the Western Cape High Court ordered in March 2013 that the RRO fully resume operations by July 2013. However, despite these 2012 and 2013 court rulings, it was reported in April 2013 that the Cape Town RRO had not accepted any new applications since June 2012.” Welcome to Cape Town!

Here’s the story of Mari, Masani, and Flavirina, residents of Cape Town.

Mari: “Lesbian asylum seeker Mari has an educational background in finance management and worked as an accountant in her home country of Angola. She reports that she had two interviews where, after having a positive reception on the phone, the potential employer would not even ask for her CV or paperwork after meeting her in person and assuming her sexual orientation … Mari, who recently escaped from Angola with her girlfriend, explained that she and her girlfriend had to sell all of their possessions and combine their savings to purchase plane tickets to flee to South Africa. Since arriving in Cape Town, they have been unable to find work and therefore are unable to afford housing. (Mari explains that despite their efforts to find employment, they are extremely limited because they cannot seek asylum seeker status and obtain legal documentation since the Cape Town DHA office has stopped accepting new arrival applicants.)”

Masani: “Lesbian refugees and asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable as they are often victims of sexual assault. As a result of discriminatory attitudes, police officers do not take reports of sexual assaults targeting the LGBTI community seriously. [Masani, a Ugandan lesbian] explains that police often respond with additional harassment when speaking with victims, asking questions such as, `How can you enjoy sex with ladies?’”

Flavirina: “Flavirina arrived in Cape Town from Burundi as a guest for an LGBTI/transgender conference. When people in her hometown heard why she had left the country, an official from Burundi contacted her and warned her to stay out of the country or she would likely be imprisoned or attacked upon her return. She applied for refugee status in South Africa and is still pending a determination. Since living in South Africa, she has lived in various shelters, on the streets and is currently living in a township. At one point, Flavirina found refuge at a Christian shelter, where she had to hide both her Muslim religion and her gender identity. The shelter separated the living quarters by gender, forcing her to share showers, dressing rooms, and other living quarters with men. As the shelter did not allow new members to leave the premises for the first three months of their stay, Flavirina was trapped in this environment, having to dress and act male. After coming out to the pastor in charge of the shelter, he told her he could no longer guarantee her safety.”

Most interviewees in this report were aware of the protections in South Africa’s Constitution, and the minority that were not came to the country following rumors of tolerance in the nation’s communities.” They found violence and promise, persecution and hope. They found that, in South Africa, life can be hard and dangerous for lesbians. They found as well that, in South Africa, life can be hard and dangerous for women marked as `foreigner’.  As non-national Africans and as lesbians, they face housing and employment discrimination.

In February, Free Gender, the Khayelitsha-based Black lesbian organization, celebrated 20 years of democracy and lamented 20 years of fear. They celebrated the rule of law as they decried the rule of violence and torture.

For those who decry and work to reverse the current wave of homophobic legislation, continue to do so. At the same time, ensure your country has more than good laws. Make sure you welcome and care for the stranger in your strange land, whoever she may be.

 

(Video Credit: The Atlantic Philanthropies / YouTube)

Cry the beloved Khayelitsha (Commission)

South Africa is currently awash in commissions of inquiry. There’s the ongoing and perhaps never-ending Marikana Commission. Today we read there’s to be a new commission of inquiry into the Tongaat mall collapse, last November. And there’s the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry into allegations of police inefficiency in Khayelitsha and a breakdown in relations between the community and police in Khayelitsha.

While women are significant participants in the Marikana and the Tongaat events and commissions, women are in many ways the subjects of the Khayelitsha Commission. This is not surprising, given the nature of the inquiry. The Commission’s mandate isn’t to get to the bottom of a tragic event, but rather to investigate and get to the texture of decades long dissolution of everyday life.

In the 1980s, the State built Khayelitsha and has continued to do so ever since. Part of this construction has involved the establishment of a State of sexual tyranny. That State of sexual tyranny has come forth in the testimony of Khayelitsha residents to the Commission.

The Commission began in response to a complaint lodged by the Women’s Legal Centre, representing the Social Justice Coalition, Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education, Free Gender, Triangle Project, and Ndifuna Ukwazi. That complaint was lodged in 2012. The Social Justice Coalition had been organizing hard for two years prior for an investigation into the situation of justice administration in Khayelitsha. As the complaint noted, “Since 2003 the civil society organisations have held more than one hundred demonstrations, pickets, marches and other forms of protest against the continued failures of the Khayelitsha police and greater criminal justice system. The organisations have also submitted numerous petitions and memorandums to various levels of government in this regard. There have been sustained and coordinated efforts from various sectors of the Khayelitsha community for action to be taken by government agencies, including the police, to improve the situation.”

For over a decade, intensifying police incompetence, corruption, violence, and disregard for the local population went hand in hand with `vigilante justice’. In 2012 alone, 20 `vigilante’ collective killings were reported in the area. The struggle for space and for citizenship was running with blood and smoke. In the struggle for safe space and full citizenship, women, again, have been key. As the Women’s Legal Centre complaint noted, “Girls and women are frequently beaten and raped whilst walking to and from communal toilets or fetching water from communal taps close to their homes, while domestic abuse poses a threat to the safety of many women within their own homes. Between March 2003 and March 2011 there has been a 9.36% increase in the number of reported sexual crimes reported in Khayelitsha.”

Throughout the decades, women have kept their eyes on the prize. Khayelitsha is home. They should be able to live, and love, at home without fear of violence. Their children, partners, parents, friends, neighbors should as well. Through the use of public funds and private security forces, Cape Town has established `improvement districts’ … in the central city, inner southern suburbs, Sea Point and Green Point. Not in Khayelitsha. The women know that, and they don’t accept it.

Funeka Soldaat, founder of Free Gender, recounted her story of being raped, because she is lesbian, in 1995. She went to one police station, where nothing happened. Finally, without here statement being taken, she was taken to a hospital and dumped outside. The hospital said she needed a statement, and so she walked to Khayelitsha Site B police station, all of this right after having been raped. There she was treated disrespectfully, she felt because of her sexual orientation, and no statement was taken. Finally, literally barefoot, she walked home and went to sleep. The rest of the story is pain, healing, organizing. As to the police: “Khayelitsha police appear to lack the energy, will and intent to provide a service to LGBT [people].”

Malwande Msongelwa described what happened when she found her brother, stabbed to death at a bus stop. She called the police, and they didn’t come. She called again, and they finally came, but did nothing. Worse, they refused to get out of their cars: “The police do not care about people… [they] will only come out if there are drugs. Then they will come out with 10 cars …They do not even care if you are injured… If the ambulance hasn’t arrived they won’t touch you. They wait in their car… I don’t trust the police.” Her brother lay on the ground for six hours. The crime scene was never investigated.

The stories continue. Ms. Nduna describes how a police van hit and dragged one of her children. This was the fifth child in the area to suffer harm, and worse, at the hands of a police vehicle. What happened? “We buried and there was nothing still.”

The harrowing stories of violence, of police inaction and worse, of vigilante action and worse, occur in a framework of radical hope. Phumeza Mlungwana, Secretary General of the Social Justice Coalition, put it simply and directly: “Most of Khayelitsha is policeable.”

Witness and after witness explained that lights, presence, a diversity of site appropriate techniques, a committed and engaged and respectful police force are what are called for. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not impossible. The women of Khayelitsha know that. They know, from experience, that when the work of struggle accompanies the work of mourning, they can make things happen. The Commission itself is a step along that path. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: Kate Stegeman / Daily Maverick)

(Not) While the city sleeps

(Not) While the city sleeps

(Not) While the city sleeps
there is a child rape
crisis in the city
(a World Design Capital city)

(children should be
seen and not heard)

(Not) While the city sleeps
a terrifying epidemic
of sexual assault
(4 a day reported)

Never mind the police
Never mind our constitution
and flowery speeches about it
(Women’s Month quite far away
16 Days of Activism a memory-distant)

(Not) While the city sleeps
we attack our children
(and our women too)
with impunity

Malnutrition and hunger
crosses security fences
(that protect us from ourselves)
to be right on your doorstep

Is it the poor
Is it the hungry
Is it the jobless
matriculants and even
the homeless

Is it you
behind closed doors
in gated mansions
in ivory towers
be-suited in committee

How does the city sleep
(the city that works)
in the cold light of day

How do you sleep

 

“Child rape crisis in city” (Argus, 31 January 2014)

Auriol Cloete, the Tiresias of Hangberg

Auriol Cloete

Sometimes a dune is a dune is a dune (thank you, Gertrude Stein). And sometimes … it’s not.

The Cape Times reports: “The city council has created a Frankenstein’s monster by planting grass on the Hout Bay dunes to stabilise them.” Here’s the story, in a nutshell. Until the 1940s, the winds between Hout Bay and Sandy Bay created a mobile sand dune. Then, people built houses. Then, homeowners demanded the dunes be stopped. And so the City started grassing the dunes. Now, Sandy Beach is just about disappeared, and Hout Bay has a second dune that is literally devouring roads, houses, and more. And there’s more to come. It’s the urban development eggplant that ate … Hout Bay.

This would be a laughable parable of urban `development’ if it weren’t for other recent Hout Bay news: toilets. A little while ago, 14 new toilets were installed in the Hangberg informal settlement. In 2010, Hangberg was the site of ferocious engagements, as the City Council, the same one that has created the second dune, did its best, or worst, to pound the location into smithereens. That resulted in the uprising of Hangberg.

Since the Hangberg Peace Accord, according to Auriol Cloete, the number of folks living in Hangberg has tripled. Who’s Auriol Cloete? Here’s a report from 2010: “Hangberg resident Auriol Cloete made breakfast for her children, saw two of them off to school and felt proud as she sat in the house she had built for them. Hours later the mother of four was partially blind, cowering on her bed, bleeding from the left eye, and screaming at her children to keep lying flat on the floor as police and residents clashed outside…. She was injured…when violence broke out between residents and police who had entered the settlement to escort workers contracted by the City of Cape Town to demolish about 20 unoccupied dwellings erected illegally on a firebreak. Residents threw rocks and petrol bombs and fired distress flares at officers who used rubber bullets in retaliation. A rubber bullet hit Cloete in the left eye… Cloete ran back into her house as it was too dangerous to try to get to an ambulance… Later, she was taken to hospital with another resident, who was apparently also shot in the left eye, and who is now unable to see because his right eye has become infected… Cloete, who worked whenever she could secure a job, has lived in Hangberg all her life and had spent more than R60 000 on a home for her children.”

Auriol Cloete is the Tiresias of Hangberg, and what she sees today are 14 toilets that, after three years and untold injuries, somehow signify welcome.

Here’s what Cloete might see in the future. Sometimes a dune is a dune. And sometimes a toilet is a toilet. And sometimes, urban development isn’t development at all. When nature and populations are seen as problems to be controlled, when – in the name of well being and prosperity – the histories of shifting sands and populations on the move are ignored or worse, expect the worst.

 

(Photo Credit: Thomas Holder / Independent Newspapers)

Welcome Irene Kainda as a neighbor, not as a stranger

What are the borders of being-a-refugee? When does one stop being a stranger and become simply a neighbor? Irene Kainda wants to know.

Irene Kainda is 21 years old. She lives in Cape Town. She has lived in Cape Town continuously since 1998. She used to live with her mother and her brother, Felipe, who is two years younger than Irene. In 2006, Irene and Felipe’s mother abandoned them. The two children spent three years in a homeless shelter, and then were taken in by some good people. Now Irene is in college and so is her brother, thanks to Irene’s hard work. In many ways, this is, or could be, a tale of great promise, a tale of a young woman who keeps on keeping on.

Irene and Felipe came to South Africa as refugees, and there’s the rub. The civil war in Angola is officially at an end, and the situation is both improved and improving: “Angola is a nation of bright minds, brilliant writers, exceptional musicians, and a civil society that, almost 11 years after war’s end, is ready to have its voice heard.” Of course, there’s much room for improvement, but that’s true everywhere.

Recently, the South African government decided to `encourage’ Angolan refugees to return `home’. The `invitation’ to `apply for repatriation’ is universal. Everyone has to `apply’. Hundreds of thousands of people, call them Angolans who have sought refugee status, live in South Africa. Many of them have lived there for twenty years. For many of them, South Africa is the only home they really know. Irene Kainda notes, “I came to South Africa when I was seven. I don’t remember Angola, I don’t know where I am from and who or where my family there is.”

What are the borders of being-a-refugee, and how does gender inflect those borders? Women and girl refugees haunt the world. According to the most recent UNHCR Global Trends Report, at the end of 2011, 42.5 million people were displaced. Of them, 15.2 million were refugees. Women and girls made up 49 per cent of persons “of concern to UNHCR.” According to the UNHCR, 48 percent of refugees are women and girls. Further, “in 2011, UNHCR submitted some 92,000 refugees for resettlement. Ten per cent of all submissions were for women and girls at risk, the highest percentage of the last six years.” The next UNHCR report comes out in a month.

The civil war in Angola saw massive, programmatic and widely acknowledged violence against women and girls, and yet the processes and structures concerning demobilization altogether avoided women and girls as a distinct group. Thus, no resources were dedicated to their specific needs. And now it looks like South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs will do the same, avoid any recognition of the specific situations of Angolan-born women and girls living in South Africa.

Meanwhile, more than one study has noted that xenophobia is the dark side of the new supposedly democratic South Africa: “Intolerance is extremely pervasive and growing in intensity and seriousness. Abuse of migrants and refugees has intensified and there is little support for the idea of migrant rights.” Sometimes the abuse was directed specifically at Angolan refugees in Cape Town: “The City of Cape Town, like many other cities, has seen a number of xenophobic attacks on foreigners…The most well-publicised conflicts have been those in Danoon, Doornbach in 2001 and in Joe Slovo Park in 2002. Perhaps the most publicised incident was in Joe Slovo Park, where four people were killed in clashes between Angolan refugees and South Africans.”

Irene Kainda is an Angolan-born young woman who has lived and grown up, and raised her younger brother, in Cape Town in a very particular historical period. She has labored through abandonment, homelessness, xenophobia, violence against women, and more. At every step of the way, she was supposed to fail, and take her younger brother down with her. Instead, she succeeded, and took her younger brother up with her. And her reward, if the South African government has its way, is to be shipped to a `homeland’ she doesn’t know?

That cannot be. The State cannot punish Irene Kainda who has spent almost all her life engaged in Cape Town in performing the labor of survival with dignity, hope, and humor. Rather than deport Irene Kainda, reform the State. Institute a statute of limitations on being-a-refugee. Take responsibility for being a haven. Stop treating Irene Kainda as a stranger and welcome her as a neighbor.

 

(Photo Credit:Mail & Guardian)