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"Let my misfortune be a lesson on peace and development"

"Let my misfortune be a lesson on peace and development"

A Congolese refugee in South Africa who feels he is just doing his little bit in his little corner of Africa.
9 October 2002
Congolese refugee Mufumbe Mateso Felix visiting UNHCR's booth at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (UNHCR) - They call him an activist of peace, an advocate of sustainable development in Africa. But Mufumbe Mateso Felix, a Congolese refugee in South Africa, feels he is just doing his little bit in his little corner of Africa.

Felix, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for South Africa in 1996, is grateful that he now lives in an environment of peace, an environment that prizes the safety of its citizens above all else. In return, he is making a positive contribution to his host country - together with two South African partners, he has established a non-profit organisation that offers computer literacy training, business skills and catering classes to South African and refugee widows, single mothers and children.

Besides teaching practical skills, the organisation aims to break down the barrier between refugees and locals. With a small office in Soweto, Johannesburg, Felix has shrugged off the myth among refugees that to "venture into Soweto is to invite your own demise".

"It's so wrong," he argues. "I'm there every week and no one has laid a finger on me. In fact, no one there has even called me kwerekwere [a derogatory term for foreigners], at least not to my face. That has only happened in the Johannesburg city centre, where refugees purport to feel safest! It's nonsense!"

Felix, who is fluent in Zulu, South Africa's most widely-spoken language, feels that refugees are not making the effort to bridge the divide with black South Africans, who accuse them of taking local jobs. In addition to his office in Soweto, he had initially wanted to open his headquarters in Jabavu, Soweto, where office space is more affordable and easily accessible for the surrounding community, who make up the majority of his students.

"It couldn't work. No matter what I did or said to dispel the myth about Soweto among the refugees, it just didn't work. They were not having any part of it. My business partners had no choice but to open the new headquarters in Johannesburg city, where we could achieve our overarching aim - breaking down barriers between refugees and locals."

A fervent supporter of the vision of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and the African Union (AU), Felix is passionate about making a contribution, forging links and promoting better human relations to help usher in the continent's new direction. For him, that contribution starts here in South Africa with refugees and locals.

"So what if no high-profile people know what I'm doing? The media don't come to visit and interview me, but I know that my contribution is an important one. It is the breakdown in human relations as a country that forced me to flee the DRC. I'm turning my misfortune into a positive lesson through my organisation."

Stressing the need for reconciliation, he added, "South Africa's history has also affected people very much. So as a refugee, I'm taking its experience and my own to create an environment that breaks down our pre-conditioned myths and stereotypes about each other and encouraging us to take advantage of the good we all have to share among ourselves and ultimately, for this continent."

Felix's more cynical friends disagree. For them, the vision of NEPAD and the AU is only recycled jargon in glossy magazine sleeves. Jaded and disappointed with what they call the "empty promises of the world and the betrayal of their countries", their mantra today is the American greenback, the pound sterling or the euro. This, they say, is the language of the future, their definition of sustainable development. For many refugees, resettlement is still the only and preferred durable solution, and they will go to great lengths to attain this.

Living up to his nickname, "the activist of peace", and while understanding his friends' frustration, Felix tries to dissuade his friends from being lured away from Africa for what he feels are the wrong reasons.

"Yes, life as a refugee is hard. It is particularly difficult in South Africa when you have come from a camp environment, which provides you with your every basic need. Then you realise that outside, it is pretty much every man for himself. Yes, South Africa is not easy, neither is Africa for that matter. But does that mean we abandon her? What parent abandons an errant child? Doesn't the responsible and loving parent seek help, find other solutions or try a different tack?"

"That is exactly what NEPAD and the AU are. It is about Africans putting our collective foot down and saying enough with the unworkable solutions. Let us put checks and balances to encourage and monitor an effective system for our development!"

Felix is adamant that the proof of the pudding is in the vision's implementation. "That implementation however, is not only about governments and the world's so-called superpowers signing endless agreements and millions of dollars exchanging hands. It is also about Mufumbe Mateso Felix doing his little bit in my little corner of Africa to turn that vision into reality."

While efforts may be slow to take advantage of refugees' skills in South Africa, resourceful refugees are not waiting to be discovered or patted on the back. They are taking the proverbial bull by the horns and steering their own destinies and aspirations for Africa while in asylum, with the hope that one day, they will be able to do the same, back home.

By Pumla Rulashe
UNHCR South Africa