Mandela Day appeal draws apology for xenophobic attacks in South Africa

News Stories, 20 July 2009

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
Good friends, Ernest Tshavhuyo and Abdul Hassan work together to promote awareness and tolerance of refugees and migrants in Jeffsville Informal Settlement, Pretoria.

JEFFSVILLE INFORMAL SETTLEMENT, South Africa, July 20 (UNHCR) Residents of a sprawling informal settlement outside South Africa's capital, Pretoria, responded to an appeal for community action on Mandela Day with a heartfelt apology to refugees and migrants they had victimized during a wave of xenophobic attacks last year.

The spur to addressing the violence was an appeal on Nelson Mandela's 91st birthday last Saturday the nation's first Mandela Day to carry out 67 minutes of goodwill, symbolizing the 67 years he worked for democracy. Residents issued an open invitation to refugees driven out in May 2008 to return to the community.

Jeffsville Informal Settlement is one of thousands in South Africa accommodating swathes of the country's unemployed that have mushroomed since the end of apartheid in 1994 zinc and wooden structures on the periphery of the country's urban centres where occupants huddle together in the hope of eventually securing decent employment and a better life.

Newly arrived refugees and migrants have little choice but to move into poor communities, but their ability to generate income in the economically depressed environment hasn't gone down well. It was only a matter of time before they fell victim to the community's anger and frustration at their own impotence and the non-delivery of basic services such as housing, safe water and proper sanitation.

Jeffsville became notorious as the community that mounted the first organized assault against refugees and migrants, the start of weeks of frenzied xenophobic attacks that blackened South Africa's image.

As part of its 2009 public awareness and community mobilization strategy, UNHCR and the Refugee Care and Development Agency (RCDA), a community-based organization, conducted several outreach initiatives in Jeffsville and neighbouring Atteridgeville prior to World Refugee Day on June 20. Initially they met stiff resistance.

"We wouldn't entertain any notion that refugees and migrants weren't to blame for our economic hardship," recalls Ernest Tshavhuyo, secretary of the Jeffsville branch of the South African National Congress (SANC) and a respected leader in the settlement. He was among the detractors on the first day of the initiatives.

"After an hour discussing issues back and forth, I began feeling great discomfit in my heart about what had happened here. It wasn't right and our actions as a community left a bitter taste in my mouth."

Tshavhuyo is descended from Zimbabwean migrant workers who, in much the same way as migrants who'd taken up residence in his community, came to South Africa seeking better economic opportunities. As he began questioning his rejection of people who did what his forefathers had also done, the burden of guilt and discomfit about his community's behaviour spurred him to action.

Tshavhuyo offered his services and that of SANC to UNHCR, RCDA and the Somali Association of South Africa (SASA). Through his intervention, UNHCR and its partners were able to safely penetrate the communities of Jeffsville and Atteridgeville with awareness activities promoting tolerance among the locals for their foreign neighbours.

"This was a man who had a strong desire to right a wrong that had been committed in the community," says Abdul Hassen Pretoria, chairperson of SASA. "I'm glad he got the opportunity to say what was in his heart on World Refugee Day and again on Mandela Day." In front of some 300 residents, Tshavhuyo took the podium on Saturday and, on behalf of the community, implored the refugees' forgiveness for their actions.

According to Achmat Dangor, the head of The Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), the former president had requested that the Foundation stimulate dialogue, particularly between people whose disagreements have the potential to destabilize society. Jeffsville was a prime example of the lack of social cohesion in South African communities.

Through trained facilitators, community members are encouraged to explore issues affecting their lives, on their own terms and in their own languages. In this manner, dialogue has the potential to improve relations between members of communities. The residents of Jeffsville have taken the first step.

"Working with the UNHCR, NMF, and SASA has been like being part of a big family of different nationalities," says Tshavhuyo. "All the organizations were determined to address the issue of xenophobia and I began feeling like I was participating in something good. It is something I want to continue doing."

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step and Ernest has taken it," says Hassen, whose Somali compatriots have suffered greatly from xenophobia and crime in South Africa. "I have certainly accepted his apology."

By Pumla Rulashe in Jeffsville Informal Settlement, South Africa




UNHCR country pages

South Africa's Invisible People

In March 2011, UNHCR initiated a project with the South African non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), to tackle the issue of statelessness. The specific goals of the project were to provide direct legal services to stateless people and those at risk of statelessness; to engage government on the need for legal reform to prevent and reduce statelessness; to raise awareness about stateless people and their rights; and to advocate for the ratification of the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness.

LHR had conceived the project a year earlier after noticing that large numbers of Zimbabwean-born asylum-seekers were telling its staff that they faced problems getting jobs, studying or setting up businesses - all allowed under South African law. They told LHR that when they applied for Zimbabwean passports, necessary to access these rights, they were informed by consular officials that they were no longer recognized as Zimbabwean citizens. This effectively made them stateless.

Since the project's inception, LHR has reached more than 2,000 people who are stateless or at risk of statelessness. These people came from more than 20 different countries. It has identified numerous categories of concern in South Africa, both migrants and those born in the country.

The following photo set portrays some of the people who have been, or are being, helped by the project. The portraits were taken by photographer Daniel Boshoff. Some of the subjects asked that their names be changed.

South Africa's Invisible People

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa where registered refugees and asylum-seekers can legally move about freely, access social services and compete with locals for jobs.

But while these right are enshrined in law, in practice they are sometimes ignored and refugees and asylum-seekers often find themselves turned away by employers or competing with the poorest locals for the worst jobs - especially in the last few years, as millions have fled political and economic woes in countries like Zimbabwe. The global economic downturn has not helped.

Over the last decade, when times turned tough, refugees in towns and cities sometimes became the target of the frustrations of locals. In May 2008, xenophobic violence erupted in Johannesburg and quickly spread to other parts of the country, killing more than 60 people and displacing about 100,000 others.

In Atteridgeville, on the edge of the capital city of Pretoria - and site of some of the worst violence - South African and Somali traders, assisted by UNHCR, negotiated a detailed agreement to settle the original trade dispute that led to the torching of Somali-run shops. The UN refugee agency also supports work by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to counter xenophobia.

South Africa: Searching for Coexistence

Khaled Hosseini - No one chooses to be a refugeePlay video

Khaled Hosseini - No one chooses to be a refugee

UNHCR's 2012 World Refugee Day global social advocacy campaign, "Dilemmas", aims to help fight intolerance and xenophobia against refugees. UNHCR Goodwill Envoy Khaled Hosseini and a host of other celebrities echo the same strong message: No one chooses to be a refugee.
Juanes - No one chooses to be a refugeePlay video

Juanes - No one chooses to be a refugee

UNHCR's 2012 World Refugee Day global social advocacy campaign, "Dilemmas", aims to help fight intolerance and xenophobia against refugees. UNHCR supporter Juanes and a host of other celebrities echo the same strong message: No one chooses to be a refugee.
Yao Chen - No one chooses to be a refugeePlay video

Yao Chen - No one chooses to be a refugee

UNHCR's 2012 World Refugee Day global social advocacy campaign, "Dilemmas", aims to help fight intolerance and xenophobia against refugees. Yao Chen UNHCR Honorary Patron for China and a host of other celebrities echo the same strong message: No one chooses to be a refugee.