The civil wars in Angola, which stretched over 27 years and forcibly displaced five million people, were especially brutal. So horrific were the war crimes that some were granted refugee protection in South Africa based solely on trauma – rather than on the legal grounds of conflict or persecution. In one such case, a man was forced to eat his own father.
In the late 1990s, thousands of Angolans fled across land, hiding themselves in fruit and petrol trucks that were headed southwards across Namibia. They arrived in a “new South Africa” where the progressive Refugees Act had just been promulgated. Older Angolan refugees recall how they were “welcomed” by the government-run Refugee Reception Office; some were offered coffee and blankets upon applying for asylum.
Fast-forward 20 years, and this same community is facing possible mass deportation to Angola at the end of next year.
More like a texture: Remembering Angola
Olivia, 25, describes her memories of Angola as “only a texture” – the sounds of bullets, shaking earth, a smell of an “orangey smoke”. As a three-year-old, she was hidden in the cubbyhole of a petrol truck during her family’s flight from Angola.
Despite being orphaned and growing up in a shelter, Olivia has managed to enroll in a Master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Cape Town (where, somewhat ironically, her thesis explores the concept of South African citizenship). She was invited to present the thesis at a conference in Japan but was forced to cancel the flight because of an error on her visa. It was finally issued in November 2019, nearly two-and-a-half-years after the South African government agreed to issue it. With a looming expiry date and no promise of renewal, Olivia is unsure if she will ever be able to graduate.
Thousands of Angolan refugees like Olivia recall intricate life stories that are marked and controlled by wars and papers.
Fernando, 45, is tall and muscular. As a teenager on the way to school, he was abducted by the Angolan army to be trained as a child soldier. He escaped, and fled south towards South Africa. A smuggler was paid to take Fernando to safety by crossing the Orange River that separates South Africa from Namibia. That night, a small group of Angolan refugees had amassed at the riverside, including Animata – a baby girl whom Fernando helped to carry.
When Fernando speaks about that night, it seems natural to him that he would recall with such precision that it was at 2am on 22 May 1999 when the smuggler instructed them to start crossing the dark river, clinging to a rope that linked the two banks. The current was strong and the group started to scream.
“I jumped to stop sinking into the sand because I could not swim. I had to survive myself and leave the others.”
Thanks to his height, Fernando managed to grasp onto roots and climb to the other side. Everyone else was washed away, including baby Animata. In the Angolan refugee community this is no unusual story, and the community’s resilience is all the more impressive.
2013: The end of refugee status in South Africa
According to statistics from the Department of Home Affairs, there were just under 10,000 Angolan asylum-seekers or refugees in South Africa in 2013. In May of 2013, the government announced the cessation of refugee protection for all Angolans as Angola was considered a safe and democratic country. Refugee status for Angolans was to be cancelled – which followed the decision, four years prior, by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that deemed Angola safe.
Upon the cancellation of Angolans’ refugee status, a small number of them selected repatriation to Angola (which included a UNHCR-funded flight, U$150 and a few kilograms of luggage). The large majority of Angolan refugees chose to remain in South Africa. This group had to sign away their asylum claims and apply for an Angolan passport, in which was pasted a temporary visa – the “Angolan Cessation Permit”. This permit was valid for two years only.
This whole process was over in a matter of months, and members of the Angolan community were left stunned at their sudden change in status.
Angolan refugees are firmly established in South Africa. To many, the prospect of “return” to Angola is nonsensical. Research in 2015 found that, on average, Angolan refugees had lived in South Africa for 18 years, with one in three running their own business – 78% of which provide employment to South Africans. Nearly three-quarters of Angolan refugees had started their own families in South Africa. After 23 years in South Africa, Olivia considers it her home:
“I am invested in the politics here. I care about the people here, because they’re my people too.”
2015: Slipping into an undocumented state
Despite such profound integration, the government refused to extend the Angolan Cessation Permits in 2015. The Angolan refugee community slid into an undocumented state. Only after a lengthy, complex legal battle did the government agree to allow Angolan refugees to remain in South Africa. (During this, Angolan former refugees lived on photocopies of various court orders to protect them from the ever present threat of arrest and deportation.) That legal battle culminated in the submission of 160 lever-arch files (totaling 80,000 pages) to the Department of Home Affairs, containing applications from Angolan refugees asking to remain in South Africa. In June 2017, the incumbent minister of home affairs granted Angolan refugees another four years to live in South Africa. This time, it was called the Angolan Special Permit.
Again, Angolan refugees were requested to submit details to the government, this time via VFS Global – an international company that is outsourced to administer visa processes in South Africa. In another administrative flurry, Angolan refugees raced to provide their fingerprints, names and details to VFS and were given a “proof of application” slip – which was a reference number scribbled on a scrap of paper torn from an invoice book with no logo, no name and no details. Some applicants are still using this proof of application as a form of “legality” in the country.
2020: An uncertain future
In 2019, it was calculated that two-thirds of Angolan former refugees were still awaiting their new visa or were awaiting “rectification” of mistakes in those visas. In this state, their lives are precarious, unplannable, and are subject to arbitrary practices by the authorities. Rosa Gupite, a member of the self-formed Angolan Cessation Committee, explains how “it’s affecting their livelihood in South Africa. It’s a real challenge if one needs to renew a bank card, driver’s licence, apply for a job or study.”
Maria, who came to South Africa as a small child and now has a family of her own, has absolutely no memory of Angola. Tired of the administrative struggles, Maria has decided to relocate to Angola with her husband and children, leaving her parents behind in Cape Town.
“We are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I have been forced into this decision,” she says.
Ironically though, despite Maria feeling “forced to go back” to Angola, she cannot leave. Trapped in an administrative web, her visa has an error on it, which precludes her from getting a birth certificate for her child, which in turn prevents her from exiting the country with her child.
Planning to leave or stay: Life after 2021
Whether Angolan refugees have their visas extended is solely at the discretion of the minister of home affairs – whoever that might be in 2021. He or she might grant them an extension, or might order their forced return to Angola.
The Angolan Cessation Committee has been asking to meet with the South African government since January 2019. The committee is worried about the future of Angolan former refugees in South Africa, those Angolans who have permits, as well as those who may have missed deadlines and are now living illegally in South Africa, and the hundreds of spouses and children of Angolan former refugees who have effectively been forced into undocumented lives.
At the end of it, this is a small community of refugees who just want to be able to rest and grow. Many speak Afrikaans or Xhosa as their first or second language and know South Africa as home.
As Maria explains, “It’s not like we want to get something from the South African government; we just want to be settled and call this place home. This documentation issue is forcing me to abandon ship.” MC
Lotte Manicom has managed the Angolan Cessation Project at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town since 2013. It provides paralegal assistance to those affected by the Angolan cessation and conducts high-level advocacy around their request to remain in South Africa.
Maverick Citizen will be contacting the Department of Home Affairs and Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, offering him an opportunity to respond.
"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson
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