Recognised refugees in South Africa call for public education on their right to work

While recognised refugees have little to worry about from Government's inspection of businesses not in compliance with the '60 percent employ South African rule', it is their colleagues and peers, who do not understand their right to work that has them living in fear.


Many recognised refugees employed in the hospitality, construction and small business sectors in South Africa, fear the employ '60 percent South African rule', will expose them to victimisation and harassment.   © Pumla Rulashe

Pretoria, South Africa - Prepping for the lunch time rush is a welcome distraction for Max Birindwa,* a restaurant manager at one of Pretoria’s favourite eateries. He is one of several refugees employed at the popular chain store in an equally well-liked shopping mall in South Africa’s capital.

Many South Africans would assume that he is one of the thousands of foreign nationals employed in the hospitality, construction and mining sectors, which have been accused of widespread non-compliance with legislation stipulating that at least 60% of their staff comprise South African citizens.

This has given rise to serious concern from individuals, communities and Government, particularly the Department of Home Affairs, which is to embark on a “‘mass inspection’ of businesses countrywide to ensure they complied.”

Birindwa fortunately, is a holder of a Section 24 Permit, written recognition of refugee status by the Department of Home Affairs, which allows him to remain in South Africa for a specified period of two years during which time he is authorized to work and study.

He is confident that with proof of compliance with South African legislation on his status as a refugee, he has nothing to worry about, should the Home Affairs inspections approach the business he manages.

His major worry is rather the actions of those South Africans, who are not aware of the permit, the protection and rights it affords him and other recognised refugees.

Birindwa arrived in South Africa in 2002, after fleeing forced military conscription in Bukavu, his home in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Through long stretches of unemployment and menial jobs, six months into his arrival in South Africa, Birindwa decided to do “things right.”

“My grasp of spoken English was almost non-existent and I honestly couldn’t expect to be gainfully employed, when I couldn’t communicate or understand what was being said to me.”

Six months later and with new-found confidence now that he could speak and understand English better, he readily became a waiter at a popular restaurant.

“What people don’t understand is as waiters we don’t earn a salary but a 2% commission and tips so by virtue of being employed in this sector does not guarantee a salary at the end of the month,” he explains. “Because I was the new employee at the restaurant, I was given a section that drew very few customers. It was so I could practice my skills at getting clients not only to eat but to return to the restaurant again through the service I gave.”

That first month, Birindwa earned only 500 rands around (USD 37), which forced him to resign in disappointment.

“I couldn’t pay rent nor the utilities, let alone groceries for the month. I was very discouraged!”

Fortunately, the camaraderie and brotherhood amongst his fellow DR Congolese helped him stay afloat financially, although they made it clear that he had to pursue other avenues of employment no matter the circumstance.

Through a series of part-time waiter jobs, which he grew to love, Birindwa honed his craft and skills to professional standards. He learnt how to address customers, the importance of presenting a menu that would to guarantee orders, how to anticipate the expectations of his customers and to proactively ensure the cleanliness and the attraction of his station. Nothing was too much trouble to satisfy the customer.

Birindwa’s professionalism soon gained the attention of his manager.

“He told me about emails he had received from customers happy with my service,” explains Birindwa. “This for me was the ultimate commendation and when he offered me training to be a manager, I didn’t hesitate.”

Birindwa excitement at managing one of the restaurants in 2013 however, was short-lived, when he realised that the staff he supervised resented him for being a foreign national in a position they believed was the sole preserve of South Africans.

“This hit me very hard because with the backing of my Section 24 Permit, I assumed that they would understand the right I have to work,” he says.

As he endured his staff’s disrespect and insubordination, relations reached the point of no return, when they beat him for giving a latecomer a dressing down.

“I left the restaurant in an ambulance and was admitted to Kalafong Hospital in Atteridgeville Township, where I was kept under observation for the night,” he recalls. “I opened a case of assault with the police and three of them were arrested. When I started receiving threatening telephone calls from people I did not know, I resigned from the position and abandoned the case.”

The attack on Birindwa left him disillusioned, defeated and in living in despair.

“I stayed at home for two years doing menial jobs again, because I was so traumatised by what happened to me.”

The cost of living and the responsibility of raising a family with three children under the age of ten, however forced Birindwa back to the formal job sector and the supervisor who trained him to become a manager, in search of a another position in the restaurant chain. Fortunately, Birindwa’s professionalism had stood him in good stead and soon enough, he was despatched to manage an outlet in another shopping centre.

For the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the government’s pronouncements on the 60/40 South African/migrant employment ratio should be undertaken with a robust public education campaign to inform employers, employees and the general public that the right to work and study for recognised refugees is enshrined in the Refugees Act and spelt out in the Section 24 Permit. 

“As the Government has made it clear that foreign nationals are welcome in South Africa, it is incumbent upon them to ensure that its citizens understand this,” says Sharon Cooper, the Regional Representative of the UN Refugee Agency. “Efforts to promote tolerance and genuine social cohesion require strong government leadership and as UNHCR, we commit to be a part of those initiatives to the best of our ability. I’m also confident that many human rights advocates stand ready to work with the government in making social cohesion a living reality.”

This is welcome news for Birindwa, who hopes that comprehensive public education will be rolled out sooner than later.

 “The resentment against foreign nationals in general irrespective of one’s legal status in the country, persists and with the recent pronouncements by the Department of Home Affairs, is bound to intensify. Unfortunately, I and thousands of others will continue to live in fear, not knowing what to expect and when, even though our refugee permits clearly state that we have the right to work in South Africa.”

*Name changed for protection reasons