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Sudanese refugee struggles against xenophobia in South Africa


Sudanese refugee struggles against xenophobia in South Africa

Godwin Ale Willow feels that he has been repeatedly detained on anti-crime raids in South Africa because of his dark skin. He recently took part in the country's first-ever public hearings on xenophobia, and has also participated actively in the UNHCR-sponsored Roll Back Xenophobia campaign.
15 December 2004
Sudanese refugee Godwin Ale Willow (left) discusses his problems with xenophobia in South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Dec 15 (UNHCR) - Godwin Ale Willow, a soft-spoken Sudanese refugee, tries to keep up with the thread of our conversation while casting a wary eye on the television camera that is focused on him. Hurriedly, he turns away, telling me that being on television has landed him in trouble on several occasions.

Willow stands head and shoulders above most people, and by his own admission, is as dark as midnight. These physical attributes have often put him on the receiving end of xenophobia-related discrimination, which after almost eight years in South Africa, have left him discouraged and disillusioned.

We are at the first-ever public hearings on xenophobia held in early November. Jointly chaired by the Government's Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs and the South African Human Rights Commission in Johannesburg, the outcome of the hearings will lead to a report that will be tabled before Parliament with the ultimate aim of realising some of the most pertinent recommendations made towards addressing xenophobia.

Before the hearings, Willow had been a vocal member of the studio audience of a locally-produced TV talk show on xenophobia. After the programme was aired, he has been shot at and physically harassed by unknown assailants. The police told him to run for his life and to keep a low profile. So he abandoned everything he had painstakingly accumulated over years of doing "piece jobs" as an artist in Johannesburg, and moved to one of the smaller surrounding towns. This is just one of the many close calls he has faced amid an unfriendly climate for refugees and migrants in South Africa.

Readily acknowledged as a global phenomenon, the public hearings on xenophobia gave the civil society, government agencies and communities affected by this scourge, the opportunity to voice their concerns - an opportunity Willow used to full advantage.

"I have always had the misfortune of being picked up and locked away by the police during their anti-crime raids, on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant or a criminal," says Willow, who lives in the populous suburbs of Yeoville and Berea. This place is unofficially called Little Lagos, a reflection on the number of foreign Africans who have taken up residence in this part of Johannesburg. It is also a favourite hunting ground for the police.

"They really have it in for me. One look at me and I'm tried and convicted on the spot! That I have my refugee identity document makes no difference!"

The South African Police Service has been accused of discharging its responsibilities with xenophobic zeal. They have been known to demand bribes and tear up refugee identity documents without batting an eye. The official methods they use to verify an individual's status in the country is through language, certain numbers on their identity documents and their geographical knowledge of South Africa. Unofficially, it is most likely to be the colour of one's skin.

Their methods of migration control have also netted dark-skinned South Africans who had the misfortune of not having their green identity documents or who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The police have been lambasted through the media for their racially-biased methods which have, among other things, landed Willow at the Lindela Deportation Centre.

"I have been there for four times and with each visit, I have struggled to prove my identity. I spent Christmas there last year and was only released on January 15 this year," he recalls.

Lindela, like many deportation centres around the world, has an unsavoury reputation. UNHCR's non-governmental legal service provider, Lawyers for Human Rights, alleges that people can be detained at the centre for up to 39 days before deportation. As many as 16 deaths were investigated last year, which the centre attributed to HIV/AIDS. Lawyers for Human Rights found that many of the deaths were due to meningitis and pneumonia. Myth and rumour abound in Lindela, with claims that people disappear or never return from the sick bay.

"That may be an exaggeration, but the living conditions aren't suited to the number of people detained there at a given time," says Willow. When he eventually left Lindela in January, thanks to a persistent clergyman, Willow fell ill. Besides the cough he had inevitably picked up at the centre, he became quite depressed.

"My time in South Africa has been very difficult and I'm getting old now. Whenever I get in touch with my mother, she cries over the fact that I'm 40 years old and still not married. I ask her how she can think of sending somebody's daughter here when I don't even have a job. When the security officials see me, they see a potential criminal. What life would that be for any wife? I can't have somebody suffer because my height, build and colouring are different," he mumbles.

In the recent past, Willow has used his physical make-up to help influence change in the mindset and attitude of xenophobic South Africans. He has participated very actively in the Roll Back Xenophobia campaign, a UNHCR-sponsored public awareness project, speaking openly about how he became a refugee and how difficult it is to find acceptance in the country.

He has attended community meetings where he was told to go home. He has braved the hostility of hawkers competing for customers and has been put on display as an "oddity" from beyond the Limpopo, the river separating South Africa from the rest of the continent.

"I remember painting a mural of the Last Supper in a church in Soweto, South Africa's largest township," recalls Willow. "Before I knew it, word had got out that a kwerekwere [foreigner] was in the church. Apparently people had been asked if they'd ever seen a foreigner. Those who responded 'no' were pointed in my direction. It was as if they'd come to the zoo. I don't know how much more of this I can take," he confides wearily.

"South Africa must be looked at within the context of its history," counters Dumisani Sithole, chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs. He says that considering the country's 300 years of colonialism and half century of apartheid, the racially-biased mindset that was ingrained in people throughout this time cannot be eradicated after only 10 years of democracy.

He continues, "This attitude of racial discrimination also exists among South Africa's own ethnic groups! A lot still has to be done in this country for South Africans to accept others for who they are. That is why it has been so important to hold the first of these public hearings."

In its attempts to continuously address the ills of xenophobia, the Roll Back Xenophobia campaign will implement some of the recommendations proposed by UNHCR at the November hearing. This includes promoting the education of personnel of all sectors of the civil service, including the police, health and education officials, on refugees and their rights. Such information will be included in syllabuses for the induction and continuing training of such civil service personnel.

The campaign will also encourage the discussion of human rights and its relevance to the treatment of refugees and migrants, as well as to violations and abuse on the African continent as root causes of forced migration. This should be made mandatory in the syllabus of South African educational institutions, with an emphasis on conveying the common values and cultures shared with other African peoples and promoting knowledge about institutions and processes like the African Union and NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development), that are engaged in the promotion of regional integration and development.

South African Human Rights Commission chairperson Jody Kollapen couldn't agree more. In closing the public hearings on xenophobia, he called for an integrated regional approach to dealing with the issues giving rise to xenophobia and the issues that continue to feed it in South Africa.

For Willow, however, the disillusionment runs deep. He has resigned himself to the fact that his physical make-up will continue to determine how he will be treated for the foreseeable future, and aspires to leave South Africa for Europe or America, where he believes he will be better tolerated.

By Pumla Rulashe
UNHCR South Africa