As xenophobic tensions boiled over into loss of life in May, in Cape Town refugees and asylum seekers were turned upon with cold hoses. In some ways, it’s simply a metaphor for the manner in which the Department of Home Affairs deals with migration. By MANDY DE WAAL.
An immaculately groomed man stands behind the glass door of the Stellenbosch Modern and Contemporary (SMAC) Art Gallery, which despite its name is situated on the corner of Buitengracht and Buitensingel Streets in Cape Town. The gallery is currently exhibiting Kate Gottgens’ latest collection of work, called Malice Aforethought. It’s a beautifully unsettling installation with its ghosts of middle-class South African suburbia staring vacantly from unframed oil on canvas.
Reviewing Gottgens’ collection, Ivor Powell of the Sunday Weekend Argus states that a “sense of impending horror” pervades the artist’s paintings, which show the “brittle fragility of our suburban hold on reality.” Writes Powell: “There is an implacable seethe of passion and irrational impulse bubbling to break through and compromise the thin veneer of order we try to impose on our experience of the world… Gottgens’s images are soaked in dread, caught at the moment before the compromising narrative unfolds, but somehow containing the bad end in a set of clues that are not quite given.”
Looking out through the glass panel that is the entrance, and with his back to the eerie Apartheid ghosts in the paintings behind him, Exodus Nucxenje has a cloth in his hand and is cleaning what is already pristine. Casual conversation reveals that Nucxenje was an agronomist who once worked for the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe. “I used to meet with farmers and train them on crop rotation, and mobilise them to sell their goods back to the organisation I was with,” says Nucxenje, who has a diploma in agriculture and a work permit, but to date has only been able to find a job as a cleaner at the SMAC gallery.
“At the gallery I do general cleaning. It is not the best work for a qualified person like me, but I enjoy what I do and I get to meet artists so I cannot complain. I am grateful that at least I have work,” Nucxenje says. He was forced to leave Zimbabwe after he was retrenched. “The Cotton Company closed most of its depots because the production of cotton declined owing to the political situation,” he says, adding that he had worked as an agronomist for some four years. “Even with my experience and qualifications it was impossible to get a job – most industries had closed or scaled back, and so I came to South Africa thinking I would get work here because of my credentials and professions.”
In 2010 Nucxenje entered South Africa at Beitbridge and then made his way to Johannesburg where he had friends, a community of other Zimbabweans who could help him resettle. “I couldn’t cope with Johannesburg,” Nucxenje says.
“I eventually became scared to be in Johannesburg. One day in Soweto at about four in the afternoon I was going to buy airtime at a local tuck shop and four guys apprehended me. They demanded that I give them my phone, and when I refused they took out knives. I had no choice but to give them my phone,” he says.
“I felt very unwelcome. People were very unfriendly and told me I was a foreigner. I was told: ‘You foreigners, you come here to take our jobs. You will even take R100 a day. You are too clever. We don’t like you here because no matter what people offer you for a job, you just take it.’ I arrived in South Africa shortly after the xenophobic attacks. It was terrifying,” says Nucxenje, who then made his way to Cape Town in the hope of finding work and safer life.
“When I got to Cape Town I couldn’t find my friend here, so I slept for two days in a park. I then met a fellow Zimbabwean in Sea Point and he gave me a place to stay. He is the caretaker of a block of flats and asked people to help me with a job,” Nucxenje relays.
“A woman I was introduced to placed adverts for me on Gumtree and helped me to get work. I was also given legal assistance to deal with the Department of Home Affairs. I went there many, many times to get asylum without success. But now I have a work permit because people were kind enough to help me,” says Nucxenje.
The man who cleans the SMAC gallery is an anomaly – few asylum seekers and refugees find kindness in South Africa. At the end of May 2013 Cape Argus photojournalist Thomas Holder took photographs of security staff at the Department of Home Affair’s (DHA) Custom House turning the fire hose on refugees. In the winter freeze, women, children and the elderly where amongst the hundreds of people assaulted.
Some of the refugees had been queuing for days, some for weeks. Many had travelled far and slept on the streets of Cape Town, hoping to get their paperwork in order. “On Monday, when the gates were opened and a frustrated crowd of about 1,000 people surged into the building, Mafoko Security staff, contracted by Home Affairs, turned the fire hose on them,” reads the report on IOL. “Men, women, and mothers holding children staggered backwards as the strong jet of cold water was sprayed over them.”
The incident provoked outrage from those who read or heard about it. But South Africa has no clear strategy for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers, and is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of foreign nationals making their way to this country.
Braam Hanekom of refugee rights organisation, People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (Passop), says that the DHA is to blame for what transpired at Customs House in Cape Town. Hanekom says the DHA knows how many people are expected daily, that it has a schedule of interviews, and has data about when documents expire on its database.
“It is almost impossible for refugees and asylum seekers to qualify, and the rejection rate for refugees and asylum seekers is unacceptably high – much higher than the global rate,” says Hanekom. South Africa gets amongst the highest influx of refugees and asylum seekers in the world, but processes a minuscule amount of applications. The UN Refugee Agency says that most countries approve about 38% of applications, while SA approves some 15%.
“Home Affairs needs to put an effective migration management system in place, and should be working with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to seek interventions for the large number of people coming to this country, but the current solution seems to be to make things as difficult as possible for asylum seekers and deport the rest. Deportation costs a fortune, and is no guarantee of solving the problem. It might interrupt the problem, but it is no solution,” says Hanekom.
“The issue is that South Africa has a huge amount of undocumented people who are asylum seekers or refugees and the country’s immigration policy is theoretical and unclear. What’s needed is a clarity and transparency on this country’s strategy for decreasing migration. Instead Home Affairs has shut down refugee centres and goes into communities to extract foreign nationals. All this does is to divide that community, escalate tensions, and at times violate human rights. There were mass deportations before the 2008 xenophobic riots which I believe sent a message to local communities, and in a way it trained people to be hostile to foreign nationals. It paved the way for vigilante attacks in communities,” Hanekom says.
The photographs of refugees in Cape Town being blasted with cold jets of water speaks its own language – at a time when xenophobic incidents have again flared up, it suggests that even government doesn’t respect their rights. Hanekom says DHA’s refugee centre in Cape Town refuses to accept first-time applications, and that this is why the centre was the scene of chaos. First came the water jets, and soon afterwards police dispersed crowds with stun guns. “The same department’s immigration officials have embarked on large immigration raids. Is this an indication that the department has prioritised deportation over service delivery?” asks Hanekom.
By its own admission, the DHA has flaws in the system for asylum seekers and refugees. Introducing the Home Affairs budget vote debate in the National Council of Provinces at the end of May, minister Naledi Pandor admitted that SA’s admissions approach needed to be revamped and stated that the location of refugee reception centres was outdated. “Our asylum system has been overrun by a mixture of economic migrants, and smuggled and trafficked victims,” Pandor told the NCOP. “The current permitting regime (policy, legislation and strategy) does not enable the regulation and management of work-seekers from the SADC region in spite of actual and historical labour flows,” she added.
Recent studies by Roni Amit of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Witwatersrand University shows a system in chaos, which flagrantly disrespects refugee’s rights, and which wastes millions of rands of taxpayers’ money. The system is very much like trying to trap water in a sieve. The report chronicles how at one time the influx of refugees and asylum seekers was greeted with expanding DHA services, but then there was a complete about-turn. Refugee centres were closed down and there was an attendant deterioration in the service offered by DHA to foreign nationals.
The survey also found that DHA officials misapplied refugee law, failed to properly interview or investigate refugees, and routinely put asylum seekers at risk of deportation even though local and international law prohibits the deportation of asylum seekers. Refugees struggle to access services and are subject to corruption, discrimination and rights violations at refugee centres, after having travelled long distances, and having waited days (and at times weeks) to access services.
“The Department has consistently ignored the fact that the defining feature of an asylum system is to protect those facing threats to life or liberty, including protecting them against deportation,” said Amit. “Instead, it (DHA) is increasingly creating barriers to the asylum system that allow it to detain and deport individuals without any meaningful assessment of their protection needs. The (report) findings cast doubt on DHA’s commitment to carrying out its legal obligations. South Africa’s asylum system has been made hollow by these administrative and substantive failures, as people are being sent back to experience death or serious deprivations of liberty under the guise of a functioning asylum system. While DHA measures this as progress, the reality is that the asylum system exists in pretence only — providing legitimacy to the illegal deportations of those guaranteed protection under the law.”
Amit’s study and statements are a damning indictment of Home Affairs and the way it deals with refugees and asylum seekers. South Africa is a nation that for the most part doesn’t show refugees or asylum seekers kindness. Nucxenje got a rare lucky break. For others, it is a matter of the metaphorical cold water cannon – the government makes it almost inhumanly difficult for people to get their papers in order.
Back at the SMAC gallery, Gottgens’ painted ghosts show an eerily idyllic suburbia devoid of political pain – in the artist’s Malice Aforethought installation, Apartheid bleeds out of view. Sadly, the same menace exists in the manner in which this country deals with people who flee conflict, human rights violations or starvation. DM
Photo: Exodus Nucxenje, a Zimbabwean agronomist who works as a cleaner at the SMAC Art Gallery in Cape Town, stands in front of Kate Gottgens’ latest collection of work, part of a collection called Malice Aforethought.
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