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Amisi Baruti & Ballard Richard  (2005) In the Absence of Citizenship: Congolese refugee struggle and organisation in South Africa. Centre for Civil Society : 1-33.

The position of refugees is instructive for understanding the meaning of citizenship. Simone suggests that the lives of some poor South Africans are ‘analogous to those of refugee camps – an endless present unavailable to politics, unavailable to the elaboration of institutions and ways of life capable of marking a passage of time, of rendering what one does today in some larger framework of purpose and meaning’ (2004: 3). Here Simone reminds us that there is no necessary overlap between having South African nationality and being a citizen in the full sense of the word. Such citizenship, where claims to rights shape relations with the state, is something which has to be claimed given a colonial history in which citizenship was denied (Mamdani 1996).

As studies in this project and elsewhere demonstrate, one of the dominant features of post apartheid social movements is the extensive use of the language of rights to articulate needs, make social demands and secure legally enforceable commitments from the government. Rights have become a way of defining fairness and social justice. The language of rights is used across the spectrum of social movements, including relatively militant ones who draw on this language to attach legitimacy to their illegal activities. It is even used to make claims regardless of whether there are legally encoded rights on the matter at hand (Greenstein 2003: 24). The appeal and power of the language of rights is that the end of apartheid has allowed the majority of the population for the first time to claim citizenship of South Africa, through which they can make demands on the state. Social movements are arguably a reflection of this new and growing claim to citizenship, something which becomes all the more evident when we examine groups that cannot, by definition, claim citizenship.

Of the 152 414 applications for asylum have been received by the Department of Home Affairs since 1994 (Groot 2004: 38), the largest group is Congolese refugees who have fled what has become known as ‘Africa’s world war’, responsible for the deaths of around three million people.1 As Appendix 2 explains in more detail, refugees face considerable hardship in South Africa, with scant livelihood opportunities, inability to access services such as health and education, poor provision of documentation from the Department of Home Affairs and xenophobia experienced daily in institutions and public settings (Bahamjee and Klaaren, 2004; Crush and Williams 2003; Danso and McDonald 2001; Groot 2004; Hunter and Skinner 2003; Landau 2004; Palmaray 2003; Vawda 1999).

Despite these extensive hardships, refugees have by and large not organised as an aggregated group with a common political interest. Aside from a Gauteng-based NGO, the Coordinating Body of Refugee Communities (CBRC), attempts to bring refugees together have failed. Congolese refugees have, instead, atomised into ethnic groupings, linked to the language group and corresponding province from which they originated. These ethnic groupings combine a focus on custom and tradition with saving schemes and other local level mechanisms to ameliorate material deprivation.2 These groups call themselves ‘tribes’ or ‘families’ and are the basic unit of grassroots organisation.

While the discovery of Congolese tribes organising in South African cities may initially seem somewhat surprising, this needs to be located within the history of Congolese political identification. Any impression that ethnic groups are pre-colonial identities that have somehow survived into a modern age must be tempered with a recognition that ethnicity has been manipulated and promoted under colonialism(Mamdani 1996). In the Congo, as elsewhere in Africa, colonial authorities used chiefs and ethnic structures to rule populations indirectly. This underpinned a structural exclusion of these ‘tribal’ populations from full citizenship.

The era of independence initially threatened to dismantle these structures but has singularly failed to do so. Accounts of political organisation in the Congo suggest that in recent decades, local level ethnic networks have been prominent (de Boeck 1996). Even before the war of the mid 1990s, the failure of the Mobutu state over decades killed the kinds of expectations citizens would normally have of their government. In response, local level ethnic organisation begins to function as what de Boeck described as ‘local strategies of resilience’ (de Boeck 1996: 99).

Transplanted to South Africa, refugees find themselves once again in the familiar position of being unable to draw on their citizenship to make demands on the state. They express no intention of claiming citizenship in South Africa and see their time in the country as temporary and relatively undesirable. They express frustration, at times against the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, at times against NGOs, at times about the politics of the DRC, and against xenophobia. They generally do not, however, seek to organise to ensure that the conditions for the treatment of refugees laid out in the legislation are adhered to. The structural category of ‘refugees’ fails to translate into a political identity or basis of organisation.

Instead, sustained organisation takes the form of ethnically based local strategies of resilience. The following discussion explores Congolese refugee grassroots mobilisation and organisation. The case we wish to make is that, despite considerable protest on one hand, and considerable grassroots organisation on the other, the inability to draw on notions of citizenship pushes refugees away from demands on the South African government, despite the fact that the latter has signed up to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, thereby undertaking to meet a variety of basic needs of refugees.

The result is a splintered politics which proceeds from the heritage of ethnic identification in the Congo, political affiliation in the Congo, physical displacement to South Africa and a belief that the South African government is not going to be of much help. Self-sufficiency and self-organisation along ethnic lines at the micro-level is seen as the basis for material and social security in the hostile South African environment.

Yet the political identity of refugees is contradictory. Within this context, protests are an unambiguous expression of discontent and, at times, a tentative claim to rights.

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