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Planting the seeds of tolerance in South Africa through soccer

News Stories, 10 August 2012

© UNHCR/Linh Dang
South African NGO Lesidi La Batho is helping to build understanding between refugees and the local community.

PRETORIA, South Africa, 9 August (UNHCR) An asylum-seeker from Zimbabwe and a South African community outreach worker have united to create understanding in a country where xenophobia has sometimes erupted into violence.

Bradley Shonhai, 23, fled Zimbabwe in 2005 after receiving threats because of his membership in a youth group that supported the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party at the college where was studying electronic repairs.

He now is the coach of an all Zimbabwean football team based in Mabopane township that he founded in 2011. Playing allowed him to escape his money daily worries; his odd jobs fixing electrical appliances were never enough to cover expenses.

Sekia Bokaba, 43, is South African and has been working with the NGO Lesidi La Batho Centre (Light to the People) since 2011, helping youths in the township with skills training. A meeting with UNHCR and Nike got Bokaba's organization interested in launching a sport's peace project.

Bokaba attended the pick-up games the Zimbabweans played to earn a little money and then asked Shonhai if he would join the peace project.

"Bradley was extremely doubtful. He asked me, 'why are you doing this for us?'" said Bokaba. But after he explained the goal of promoting tolerance between South African and refugees, Shonhai agreed to be part of it. Next he had to get support from his own community.

"I had to explain to the political, social and community leaders in the township to get their support. They also questioned the reasons behind the project. I told them: 'Some of them are your neighbours, some rent rooms from you in your yard. Are you going to chase them away?'"

"They had no choice but to accept the project because they realised it was a good thing," said Bokaba.

Funding comes from the Ninemillion.org campaign, which was created in 2006 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in partnership with Nike and Microsoft. Since then, numerous partners have supported the campaign. The overall aim is to provide more than nine million refugee youth with improved access to quality education, sport and technology.

Sport can be a powerful tool to strengthen social ties and community networks, and promote ideals of peace, solidarity, non-violence, tolerance and justice. With xenophobia being a major challenge in South Africa, UNHCR, with the support of Ninemillion.org, saw soccer as a means to promote tolerance between refugees and their host communities.

This specific project is being implemented by four NGOs in Gauteng province in South Africa Xaveri Movement, Daveyton Environmental Youth Counsel, Altus Sport and Lesedi La Batho.

While funding is only available for a few months this year, it has enabled Lesedi Le Batho to begin a process of social cohesion in the community. "We hope to continue on this path and maybe get funding from other sources, said Chrisna Groenewald, Lesidi La Batho's managing director.

Lesedi La Batho hopes to assist the refugee soccer team to become officially registered so they can play other South African teams. On the day of a tournament, the refugee team received a full uniform kit for the first time, including soccer boots.

At the tournament, at the local secondary school, a UNHCR official explained why the refugees are in South Africa. School children nodded as they heard that these people were forced to flee, much like South Africans had to live in exile during the struggle against apartheid.

"If we can plant the seed of tolerance in just one child, then it has all been worth it," said Groenewald. Behind her Bokiba and Shonhai were heading off to organise a medal presentation.

By Tina Ghelli, in Pretoria

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UNHCR country pages

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

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

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.