In the same month that home affairs celebrated World Refugee Day by announcing new strategies for dealing with asylum seekers, refugees burnt tyres and protested against graft and abuse at refugee centres. June also saw a kind Congolese man, who had much to offer South Africa, take his own life. By MANDY DE WAAL
Vanneaux Kongolo was the kind of human being that changed other people’s lives. In his mid-20s, Kongolo would flee the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country that was his home but also a place of incomparable violence.
The DRC is that country of cursed statistics. It spawned one of the deadliest battles on this planet, with more people dying in what is called “The Great War of Africa” than any other conflict since World War II. The Congo is also known as the rape capital of the world.
A man of good character, Kongolo was involved in opposition politics in the Congo. “He fled from the DRC in 2006, when, in February he was on his way with two friends to a political meeting, and stopped to buy some airtime,” says Diana Beamish, the founder of Mercy House, in Johannesburg’s Bez Valley, which provides a caring sanctuary for refugees fleeing from hostile environments.
“Soldiers spotted his car and shot at it, not knowing that he was not inside, killing one companion and wounding another. Someone SMSed him while he was still inside the shop and told him not to come out. He escaped out of the back door and made off.” Fearing for his life, soon afterwards Kongolo made his way to South Africa where he’d find shelter at Mercy House and would try to make a new life for himself.
“Vanneaux was the most remarkable person. He was quiet and somewhat reserved, but he was a person of great integrity – truth and justice were incredibly important to him,” says Beamish, who helped secure a job for Kongolo at Little Eden, a centre that cares for people with intellectual disabilities, and which has a “home” in Edenvale that provides for young children, many of whom often require intensive medical care and therapy.
“The children absolutely adored Vanneaux because he had such patience with them, and couldn’t do enough for them. He really lived to take care of those children,” says Beamish. Kongolo was well loved at his work and thrived in his career, but his ongoing struggles with Home Affairs became a darkness that haunted him.
“He worked for us for over three years as a physiotherapist,” says Lucy Slaviero, the CEO of Little Eden, who says Kongolo was exceptionally gentle and careful with the children he treated. “He never got impatient, he was kind and gracious to everyone he met. He would always show his gratitude, he was such a gentle and graceful man. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for the children. He truly loved his work and it brought him great joy, but he was deeply, deeply frustrated by South Africa’s bureaucracy.”
The word “bureaucracy” that Slaviero uses here is a euphemism. Those who knew Kongolo say that what deeply upset him and what eventually caused his suicide was his inability to get his papers in order because of inefficiencies at the department of home affairs. (Let’s just say the word “inefficiencies” is another euphemism.)
Beamish says Kongolo applied for refugee status in South Africa based on the fact that he was forced to flee from the Congo for reasons of war and political persecution, and because his life would be threatened if he returned. Despite qualifying on international criteria for refugee status, and having a job and healthcare credentials which would enable him to make a good contribution to this country, Kongolo’s application was apparently denied.
“To be honest, we’re not even sure if Vanneaux’s appeal was turned down, and we believe his appeal may even have been successful, but his paperwork was lost so often by home affairs. It is likely the outcome of the appeal went missing somewhere between the Refugee Appeal Board and the department of home affairs,” Beamish says.
The Refugee Appeal Board is a statutory body formed in 1998, after an agreement was forged by the government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to create an independent board that would make well-reasoned and timeous decisions about people in exile whose applications had been rejected by home affairs.
The fact that Kongolo’s application was denied meant that every six months he had to go back to home affairs’ refugee centre to get his paperwork in order. This experience is often very traumatic for refugees.
In Pretoria, where Daily Maverick spent time with refugees outside the Marabastad refugee centre a few months ago, people desperate to get their paperwork in order talked about having to sleep out in the cold to get a jump on the queue. Extortion was rife and refugees had to pay guards to get through the gate, while others talked of having to pay inside to get the right paperwork. Others lamented about how often their paperwork was lost, or of officials that were xenophobic and rude.
“Vanneaux was an incredibly honest and ethical man, and he wouldn’t compromise on this. He was not the kind of person that would pay to get his papers in order. He needed to do things honestly or not at all,” says Beamish, who adds that without refugee status or the correct paperwork Kongolo was unable to register with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. He also had great difficulty trying to open a bank account and to establish himself locally.
“We appealed against the rejection and I sat with him through his appeal in May 2008,” says Beamish, who adds that the board was very sympathetic to Kongolo’s situation. “We assumed he had been granted status, but home affairs never gave it to him. Every time they simply said that they had never received any outcome from the Refugee Appeal Board.”
Things went from bad to worse when Kongolo was attacked and his refugee permit was stolen. This meant another round with home affairs, who this time gave the physiotherapist a new ID number. “When he went to Absa bank where Mercy House had been able to open an account for him, he was not allowed to withdraw his money, in spite of an affidavit from the police about the attack,” Beamish explains.
When Kongolo was given an incorrect identity number it appears this may have been the last straw.
“From November last year he didn’t have a bank account. We arranged to pay his rent direct and he made use of a friend’s bank account, but it appears the thought of having to go to home affairs again in July to sort out his paperwork was too much for him,” Slaviero says.
The head of Little Eden tells how Kongolo took sick leave on Friday 1 June 2012. He never returned to work after the weekend. “He wasn’t a great talker or sharer – even though he had suffered so much he kept everything to himself,” she says.
Slaviero and her sister went to look for Kongolo at his flat in Edenvale on Wednesday 6 June. When a neighbour heard they were looking for Kongolo, the caretaker was summonsed. A ladder was wedged against the wall and the caretaker climbed up to look through the window of Kongolo’s apartment.
“They saw him hanging. The key was still in the door and the washing was wet,” says Slaviero. “He had no family or anyone to represent him in South Africa, so we cleared his flat. It was neat and his belongings were very simple.”
Kongolo, who was 30 when he died, had left a small note. In it he thanked God for his life, and for the gifts and talents he had enjoyed during his life. He said he was tired of the pain, stress and anxiety attendant with getting his papers in order. “The suicide note was mostly a prayer of gratitude for his life,” said Slaviero, who adds that the staff at Little Eden needed grief counselling because of the profound loss they have experienced following Kongolo’s death.
“There is something disturbing about what happened to Vanneaux. He was a courageous man, a man who when there were fights would intervene to make peace,” says a priest from the Congo who is a friend of Kongolo’s family. “I spoke to his father just after the death… receiving news from far that your son is no more, sometimes you can’t accept it but the death is already there.”
“Vanneaux was a good person and the work that he was doing in South Africa was so good. Vanneaux was giving to South Africa. He was not working for immigrant children but for South African children. The place was even visited by Nelson Mandela. I saw the picture there at Little Eden myself. Not everyone can work with those kinds of children. Some of the children don’t talk, they are just looking at you, crying and then you must know what is happening with those children. Vanneaux did give his contribution to South Africa and if he was still alive he would give more,” says the priest, asking that iMaverick not use his name.
The department of home affairs Ronnie Mamoepa is quick to respond to the story, but his response feels rehearsed: “We extend our condolences to his family, they are in our thoughts and prayers and we reach out to them during this period. It shouldn’t be that people should commit suicide to have their pride addressed. We are not conversant with the case, but obviously it cannot be right,” Mamoepa says.
“If what you are reporting is correct, then people should not be treated in this way. We will have to look into this matter and see what went wrong. Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is on record as saying we should not have a repetition where people resort to suicide to have their problems resolved, but there are still some remnants of people who create a climate where people get so desperate they have no other alternatives. We commit ourselves so we can deliver quality, effective and efficient services to our people in line with our constitutional mandate to ensure our people can enjoy a better life,” the home affairs spokesman says.
This is the perfect sound bite. It is delivered without a stumble. It makes one wonder how many times this answer has been repeated.
Is this the response Khomotso Sambo and his mother received after the youth swallowed pain pills and paraffin in an attempt to end his life because he was incorrectly classified female by Home Affairs? The error created painful traumas for the 19–year-old, because Sambo was often forced to prove his manhood. Sambo, who survived the attempt, said the incorrect classification by home affairs also limited his ability to pursue his dream of becoming a radio DJ.
Or was Mamoepa’s answer the PR response crafted in 2009 when Douglas Skhumbuso Mhlongo took his life after a home affairs bureaucrat ripped up his application form and threw it in his face? Mhlongo took his life because he was unable to get a job without an ID book.
The irony is that two weeks after Kongolo’s suicide, home affairs would celebrate World Refugee Day with more verbiage. In Soweto, deputy minister for home affairs Fatima Chohan told a representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees: “We should be inspired by the courage and determination of those who are forced to start anew in a foreign land due to persecution in their own countries, like our hero OR Tambo and many others did in the years spent in exile during the long fight against apartheid.”
After offering even more verbosity on what South Africa was doing to ease the pressure on SA’s asylum seeker and refugee management system, and to offer assurances that the government was doing everything in its power to address the complex challenge of refugees in this country, Chohan said: “The 100-year anniversary of the oldest liberation movement in Africa, the African National Congress, reminds us that the South African people have always regarded themselves as full and equal citizens of the world and are committed to internationalism and to a better and safer world. The notion of Ubutu (sic) is indeed premised on an understanding that humanity is indivisible.”
While Chohan was delivering her speech, about 100 refugees marched on Parliament in Cape Town to protest the closure of a local refugee centre that was shutting its doors because nearby businesses complained about the nuisance factor of having refugees standing around outside the centre.
The day before World Refugee Day, hundreds of refugees protested outside the Marabastad refugee centre because of home affair’s decision to close these centres to asylum seekers. Refugees were also furious about abuse and graft at these centres.
Two weeks earlier, as home affairs was preparing to celebrate World Refugee Day, an honourable, kind and gentle man called Vanneaux Kongolo hanged himself after years of suffering. Another life lost at the hands of the department’s ineptitude. DM
Photo: Vanneaux Kongolo
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine