||The theme of the 2009 World Refugee Day, last Saturday, was ‘Real
People, Real Needs; just like you and anybody else’.
It was an important day for us: the only moment that the World is forced
to remember the groups of people, across the globe, displaced from their
loved ones and homes and countries.
Think about it for a moment. Refugees are individuals with real needs:
the need to love and to be loved; to go to school, hospitals, and the
police; to work and support themselves; to eat and drink; to have a
shelter; and most importantly to be protected by laws and regulations of
the host countries as well as by the people in power and on the street.
We do not increase the price of food or accommodation as some people
believe. We are even more affected by the fluctuations of prices of
these commodities than other people because we are more vulnerable.
Refugees have no backup mechanism in cases of emergency.
But there are groups of some people in power and on the streets that are
not prepared to know and understand the reasons why we are in your
cities and country. They think of us as a perceived or real threat to
their space, their service delivery, their scarce resources and their
assets. They see us competition over their beautiful women and handsome men.
Are these well-founded fears? We are called amakwerekwere, amagrigamba,
amanyasa, umunyama and several other names we are all aware of.
We have no land, no country, and often no hope for a bright future. We
dearly miss our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and relatives
who were not given the opportunity to survive the atrocities and
killings that we went through before reaching our destination.
Most of us have no idea of our next destination, and so in the meantime
we thank you in Durban for giving us the opportunity to rebuild our
lives in order to regain some human dignity.
Allow us to acknowledge the efforts of the KwaZulu Natal Refugee
Council, the eThekwini Municipality, the South African Police and Metro
Police, other Refugee Service Providers, Spiritual Leaders, and
progressive activists fighting xenophobia.
Some activities were in place before May 2008, when more than 60 people
were killed in xenophobic attacks, and some have happened thereafter.
Partly as a result of our collaborations, the Province of KwaZulu-Natal
was less affected than the Gauteng and the Western Cape.
We are also grateful for the contribution of the Nelson Mandela
Foundation: a Community Dialogue Programme which creates a space for
South Africans and non-South Africans to sit and discuss their common
issues: poverty, hunger, unemployment, retrenchment, poor or lack of
service delivery, the high cost of living and food, HIV/ AIDS,
neoliberal globalisation and possibly also swine flu.
We are, however, deeply concerned by ongoing police harassment in the
flats and in the streets. We mourn the Zimbabwean and Tanzanian refugees
killed in Albert Park in January, thrown from a sixth-floor window by
xenophobic thugs, and we mourn the 47 desperate DRC refugees in Albert
Park who police forced out last November, now scattered to the wind.
There are still diverse forms of discrimination wherever we go.
Exclusion, intolerance, abuses, and xenophobia should never have space
in the new South Africa.
We also worry about the xenophobic attitudes of some nurses and doctors
in hospitals, and even in schools where sometimes our children are not
accepted on the assumption that their refugee parents cannot afford to
pay school fees. We would like to see more resources channeled into
xenophobic hot spots, to contain attacks in these locations before they
spread to the entire country as they did in May 2008.
We would like to see policy-makers and politicians moving from the
rhetoric of African Renaissance, Ubuntu, Africa Day, and the like, to
implement better policies and processes which discourage discrimination
And we would like to know the outcome of court cases of ringleaders and
perpetrators of xenophobia. After all, following ethnic cleansing of the
non-South Africans, who knows which community will be chased away next.
We do celebrate small victories, such as the mature way that the Home
Affairs department finally responded to complaints about inhumane
treatment and slow asylum protesting during a protest picket last
Friday, by mainly Zimbabwean refugees.
Xenophobic feelings have torn apart communities and turned neighbours
into worse enemies. Politicians in power and in opposition, civil
society organisations, interest groups, peace loving people, and
ordinary people ourselves included condemned what happened and decided
that never, never again; these forms of violence should take place in
this country that refugees call home.
Likewise, we hope that commemoration of World Refugee day in Durban can
in future be organised by the refugee community ourselves. A few years
ago, the community was replaced in this work by service providers, who
developed a commemoration to celebrate themselves, supported by the
Since then there have been two World Refugee Days in Durban: one for the
poor and the refugees often without food or drink, and usually in a
tent; and another one for the agencies in comfortable venues such as
City Hall, with expensive food and drinks.
A few service providers continue to be architects of a ‘divide and rule
policy’ against refugees, with the aim of weakening this fragile
community, for institutional gains.
For example, ten years ago, when the KwaZulu-Natal Refugee Forum was
operational, it vehemently but unsuccessfully tried to impose onto the
refugee community their candidates for refugee community leaders.
Because this was against the will of the people, the situation became so
tense that the Forum called in a special unit of the SA National Defense
Force to ‘bring order’ to the people allegedly being serviced by the big
This year matters were just as tense. When the eThekwini Municipality
brought together the refugee community and Durban service providers in
order to organise a joint event for World Refugee Day, the latter
rejected the offer, saying they will never get involved in a joint
commemorative event with the refugee community, the same people that
they pretend to serve and who remain the cornerstone of their
activities, services and jobs in the current forms.
We condemn any attempt to divide the refugee community. Refugees who
have contacts in the City and the progressive institutions which are
willing to assist refugees should help generate a more inclusive
approach which unites the refugees, rather than pushing the interests of
some communities at the expense of the majority.
As so many South Africans who lived in exile will recall, we refugees
need to remain united, rather than being divided, in order to discuss
our struggles for survival and voice our concerns together.
Baruti Amisi works at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and is
Chairperson of the KZN Refugee Council, of which Pierre Matate is Deputy
Coordinator in charge of Advocacy and International Relations.