Refugees in SA open up ahead of Africa Day

Congolese Civil Society of South Africa (CCSA) founder and chairperson and member of the South Africa Refugee Led Network, Isaiah Mombilo. Picture: Shakirah Thebus

Congolese Civil Society of South Africa (CCSA) founder and chairperson and member of the South Africa Refugee Led Network, Isaiah Mombilo. Picture: Shakirah Thebus

Published May 25, 2024


Cape Town - Today on Africa Day, the precarious nature of life and survival in South Africa is highlighted by refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers who made the arduous journey from their home countries, escaping political unrest and harsh economic conditions, in search of stability in South Africa.

Africa Day is commemorated annually on May 25: the day on which the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1963.

The intergovernmental organisation comprised signatories from 33 governments and was active from 1963-1999. The African Union (AU) was officially launched in July 2002 in Durban, a successor to the OAU.

Some of the key aims of the AU was to foster greater unity and solidarity between African states; to defend its sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of member states; and accelerate the economic and socio-political integration of the continent.

Africa Day is intended to reflect on some of the gains made in seeing these aspirations realised and what challenges persist on the African continent in relation to these aims.

Congolese Civil Society of South Africa (CCSA) founder and chairperson and member of the South Africa Refugee Led Network, Isaiah Mombilo, has been living in South Africa since leaving Congo in 2004. Mombilo knew since 1997 that he had to leave his country.

“When I decided to come to South Africa it was the time when my father used to work for president Mobutu. We had our farm and it was destroyed and there were allegations. The new government claimed he was involved in military weapons when he was just an engineer of agriculture for the president. So we were attacked and they destroyed our farms.”

Removing his cap to expose scarring at his right temple, he said metal pierced the area during one of the attacks.

“It was chaos. They attacked my family and arrested my dad. We ended up leaving the country,” he said.

“More than 12 million people died because of natural resources, minerals. In Congo there’s no stable power. Killings are happening all the time. There are Kuluna, gangs of young people traumatising the population by killing them using long machetes.”

The journey to South Africa had not been easy, with no money.

Mombilo said Congolese nationals choose South Africa due to the long-standing diplomatic relationship between the two nations.

“I remember when we were kids at school, they had to force us to organise clothes for South African children, money and other stuff. So that memory binds us with South Africans and also the safety matter. Because the system of respect of human rights is something given consideration, we feel safer in South Africa compared to other places.”

He said “institutionalised xenophobia” in banks and in government sectors such as the Health, Home Affairs, and Labour departments were some of the challenges faced by refugees.

Large numbers of new asylum seekers were also arrested at Refugee Reception Offices, with the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town and Lawyers for Human Rights launching a court case in response to this.

Taking to social media, the centre said new asylum applicants were being subjected to arrest, detention and potential deportation before they could access the asylum system.

“This alarming trend exposes individuals to grave risks of persecution, violence, or death upon their forced return to their countries of origin.”

During election campaigning, Mombilo said not much that was being said relating to refugees was in a positive and constructive tone.

“What we wish for political parties to raise is for them to start putting a proper working system in place to allow whoever deserves to have a document to get the document on time. It’s

time for politicians to stop using refugees as a scapegoat, to gain support.”

Today the CCSA with Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education will host a solidarity event at the Castle of Good Hope from 9.30am to 4pm. The event will focus on the experiences of being Congolese in Cape Town.

A Somali woman, 23, born in South Africa, said her challenges in the country related to her autism and ADHD disorders, diagnosed three years ago.

“It is dangerous to display symptoms. I try not to display any, like not being comfortable looking people in the eye, not wearing some of the traditional clothings,” she said.

“The barriers that exist as a second generation diaspora on top of undiagnosed neurological issues can make you feel like you are drowning. I only sought out help when I had a mental breakdown and my academic adviser referred me to a therapist.”

Chronicles of Refugees and Immigrants co-ordinator and Giraffe Heroes SA director Danmore Chuma arrived in South Africa in 2016, fleeing political persecution in Zimbabwe.

Chronicles of Refugees and Immigrants coordinator and Giraffe Heroes SA director Danmore Chuma.

Chuma was arrested and detained twice for opposing the then government of Robert Mugabe, after having organised protests as a student leader at the University of Zimbabwe and co-ordinator of the Youth of Zimbabwe for Transparency and Progress.

The persecution continued throughout his professional career as a teacher, journalist, and community development practitioner, he said.

“In prison I was beaten, tortured and denied treatment. I was summarily abducted once in Mbare and luckily escaped.”

“When I presented my case before the Refugee Reception Officer in Musina, I was viewed as a liar. The officer claimed that Zimbabwe is not at war, therefore I should not claim refugee status. This is despite evidence of my persecution,” he said.

“Although I was given asylum seeker’s permit on appeal, it took many years for my case to be heard before the Refugee Appeals Board. Up to today, I am still waiting for the new date to be announced.”

He said this has affected his wellbeing and studies, pursuing a Master’s in Adult Community Education and Training at university. It was also difficult to get a sustainable job with an asylum seeker’s permit which is only valid for three to six months.

Some banks will not allow an individual to open a bank account if they’re an immigrant, refugee or asylum seeker and some housing agencies also do not want immigrants, he said.

“The police in many cases don’t deal effectively with cases reported by immigrants. They would rather support a local than an immigrant.”

CCSA member Diana Bongongo has been living, studying and working in South Africa for 14 years and said difficulties related to documentation persist.

“The feeling is like a pause imposed on you. Some hang on and some lose their life through the pressure and stress,” she said.

“I have been here for more than 10 years but still using Asylum Seekers which has limitations in certain situations, fortunately allowing me to work and study.”

She said the Afrophobia shown by political parties during campaigning ahead of elections made foreign nationals feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and “lost about the ubuntu side”.

Congolese Civil Society of South Africa member Diana Bongongo.

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