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Refugees in Athlone

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Refugees in Athlone

by Jill Williams
16 May 2006

In our country Xenophobic prejudices are rampant, the deep dislike of foreigners based on unfounded myths and stereotypes results in cliche derogatory name calling such as Makwerekwere and behaviour by some which our Constitution prohibits and is actually illegal.


In the Post Apartheid regime, many people of colour in South Africa still struggle amidst varied Socio-Political circumstances, where the decision-making of a government that used Colonialist deceptive manipulations, still has visible repercussions within society today. Inferior education, Forced removals through the Group Areas Act and purposeful psychological / identity breakdown is only but an introduction to so much complexity and pain our 'people' have and still continue to endure as a result of Apartheid. The disease of poverty is debatably a result of a proportional chunk of this.

Our compassion is compromised by the very system installed to divide us...


Refugees are persons recognized by the new South African government for fleeing individual persecution, human rights violations and armed conflict in their country of origin. They are given special status (under section 24) to remain in the country until it is safe to return to their homes. Sometimes we fail to make comparisons between our difficulties pertaining to our own history and those experienced by brothers and sisters from other African nations. Our compassion is compromised by the very system installed to divide us from a naturally humane tendency. Slaves brought to the Cape didn't just hail from Eastern parts, but from Africa too, of which very little is emphasized, our descendents could be anybody and anywhere.

In Athlone, the Foundation for Community Work located just behind the Joseph Stone Auditorium which is a 'development and resource ECD Organization that promotes the holistic development of children within the context of their families and communities. Through innovative, integrated and sustainable interventions and programmes' - there are two offices rented in the building by Refugees, "for refugees" - here's a little more on what I found upon my visit there.

Charles is from the Republic of Congo, black, tall and handsome he remembers me from an Internet cafe in Wynberg he was wearing a human rights T-shirt and I made a passing praising sort of comment on what it said.

"Tell me about the prejudices" I say... we all know they exist... and he shares with me of what the organization does with regard to these prejudices many South African people still exercise towards refugees and asylum seekers.

"We run an Advocacy Programme, involved in trying to raise awareness, to help advise, and protect the rights of refugees where there is discrimination. We help with accreditation of documentation, schooling, teaching of English and finding of work".

What are the rights of Refugees according to the Bill of Rights in the Constitution?

  • Freedom and security of the person
  • Human dignity
  • Freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention
  • Freedom from torture and other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment
  • Freedom from abusive use of state power or authority
  • Freedom of movement and settlement, religion and belief, opinion and expression, rights to be considered as a person before the law, to have access to courts of law and the right to administrative action.
  • Right to acquire property, leases and other contracts
  • Right to take up, employment or be self-employed in the profession of his/her choice
  • Have access to primary, secondary and tertiary education
  • Right to primary and emergency health care and referrals for further medical treatment
  • Right to an identity document referred to in section 30 of the Refugees Act 1998 as well as travel documents.

"They taking all our jobs and girlfriends?"

This is a famous South African complaint apparently; we fail to forget that:
Equal opportunities exist for all, we have Affirmative Action and the possible help of Governmental Grants, Employment Equity, BEE, Housing subsidies, most of our surroundings which we have grown up in, friends and family are vast and supportive. For many refugees, even though friendships are carried and made here with other migrants and refugees, this is a foreign land. A fellow refugee once told me that "South Africans are lazy, they don't want to do anything and then when we take the initiative they either copy us or complain that we are stealing jobs from them, but many are just not doing anything for themselves!"

Charles tells me about car-guarding and how refugees began this trend to earn extra cash but how afterwards South Africans followed the innovation.

A person once told me that refugees are always into selling drugs to survive and therefore they were both corrupting South African communities and becoming rich enough to attract the attention of "good-time" hungry women in this country unfairly.

My response to this was that yes, drug sale is wrong, yet "as of from when exactly isn't this paramount amongst our own people too, particularly with regards to gangsterism and daily survival tactics of our peoples, perhaps the issue of importation of drugs should be questioned". And "If a woman wants a man, or to use him for his riches, that's her democratic if not moralistic choice, if drug trafficking is involved, then that's a different story." My question is why? What does this increasing trend reveal about some of women's frustrations with men from this country or about their growing superficialities, and maybe another new trend occurring these days with a fascination between all races with 'the other'?

Charles says that Refugees, even amidst constitutional clauses, still don't have equal opportunities to employment and are usually willing "to take any job at any price", and interestingly that 80% of his clients are "highly educated" ...how ironic? For instance he sits with a Master of Arts degree from his own country. There are practices of exploitation due to peoples need to survive and lack of education. On the girlfriend-stealing issue he says that everything being done by the Nigerians which gives the refugees a bad reputation, is an unfair accusation. I think we all know of the stereotypes, existing with regard to Nigerians, yet I last night sat down with a successful, Nigerian business-owner ... well educated who swears that once again these stereotypes hinder his country's reputation. I also know of a pastor, Nigerian Head pastor, very inspirational and eloquent, who holds a service at one of the UCT's lecture rooms every Sunday morning". "They just doing these things on the outside to hide the drugs behind the scene" says another, who knows? If wrong however, this is also a heavily prejudiced assumption.

The centre also assists by sending clients for vocational training e.g. computer training, hospitality industry training and carpentry labouring skills. The centre helps refugees gain confidence and human dignity and teaches the English jargon that we as English speaking South Africans take for granted, helps vocabulary, business and employment opportunity.

Let us not just as one nation, but as an African continent fight evils which we all differently yet similarly have and still experience.

The nice thing about democracy is the human right to individual and group freedom of expression: Let us all as Africans be tolerant of one another. Let us not just as one nation, but as an African continent fight evils which we all differently yet similarly have and still experience. Lets not allow the initial discriminations of Colonial origin, which all our ancestors as people of colour have experienced through slavery, war etc. re-insert faculties of criticism within our own hearts unfairly. When righteous judgement demands action, let us not allow that to be based on a Nationality, but on a deed. I am very patriotic and proudly so, but "Ubuntu" is only one African proverb deriving from togetherness, it takes a whole village to raise a child and many villages on many parts of the continent to complete an ideal Africa. It isn't just within the bounds of the RSA.
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