Nightmare at the end of the rainbow – migrant teens describe life in South Africa’s anti-foreigner crossfire
It doesn’t feel much like a rainbow nation to the children of immigrants who are under continuous stress – from social exclusion and worrying about not being documented, to being acutely aware that their family could be next.
Anxiety, depression and constantly feeling unsafe are some of the ways immigrant children living in Johannesburg describe their everyday lives.
Attacks or incidents of xenophobia are becoming more frequent and immigrant children are hyperaware that, at any given moment, their family could be next.
Although many organisations try to provide safe spaces and advocate for immigrants, children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Mozambique say they feel like they are always in danger.
In a conversation facilitated by the non-profit organisation Save the Children, Maverick Citizen spoke to migrant children, aged between 13 and 18 years. Their names have been changed for purposes of protection.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Inside Joburg’s building of darkness, where migrants live in fear as Operation Dudula threats amplify”
Eighteen-year-old Sarah Ngodu* came to South Africa as a toddler with her parents from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
She says she was told she would be safe and things would be better in South Africa than in her home country, which is experiencing civil war and extreme poverty. The many who have had to flee their homes include residents of an East Congolese village who woke up to gunfire and bomb blasts from the M23 rebel group.
According to the Red Cross, as many as 6,000 Congolese fled to neighbouring countries in April alone.
“Although I haven’t experienced any sort of violence against me, I do not feel safe living in South Africa. There is always that anxious feeling: what if my area is the next target?” Ngodu says.
“In my neighbourhood, it is foreign nationals among foreign nationals, which is why it is a bit safe. I know no foreign national will attack me.
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“The thought of my life being taken away through xenophobic attacks makes me want to lock myself in the house, with no interest in going out, to prevent anything from happening to me. I fear out there is more dangerous than indoors.”
Abigail Dawson, advocacy coordinator at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Johannesburg, says it is common for immigrants to be under immense pressure.
“Migrant and refugee children face compounding stresses in everyday life. Many of the children JRS works with come from low socioeconomic households where there is a continuous hustle to cover necessities, including rent and food. Many of these households are run by single mothers.
“Most parents work in precarious informal jobs where there is no reliance on an income,” Dawson says.
“Documentation is a continued stress for refugee and migrant children in accessing education and healthcare. Some refugee and migrant children who are new arrivals in South Africa may experience isolation and marginalisation, particularly in schools where their language and culture cannot be accommodated,” she adds.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Undocumented migrants – The myths, realities, and what we know and don’t know”
Ngodu says she worries about the frequency of attacks. “It happens every year at any moment. It’s as if it is a holiday. I feel frustrated and sad when I see it.”
She feels like nothing is being done to protect immigrants. “Yes, I know the government is doing its best, but it feels like we are moving at no pace, or it is too slow.
“I also find it disgusting that a huge mass of people, such as in Operation Dudula, support such inhumane actions against human beings. [It is] a total violation of human rights that I am beginning to think we as foreigners do not have,” Ngodu says.
“South Africa was meant to be a rainbow nation, a place where we come in and feel safe, but through all these attacks, it’s kind of feeling like that statement was not true.”
Ngodu’s sentiments are echoed by the other children – and by many South Africans, whose “rainbow hopes” are more grey and black, living in a country where the number of unemployed people surpasses the populations of Lesotho and Botswana combined. The socioeconomic state of South Africa creates fertile ground for violence. With politicians pushing the narrative that the lack of jobs, economic growth, proper healthcare, hunger and crime are caused by immigrants, migrants become the scapegoats for the country’s troubles.
‘If it wasn’t for the attacks…’
Fifteen-year-old Ben Banda* says he loves living in Johannesburg as school and church are close by, but “as a foreigner, it is hard to get a job; it is like you are nothing in this country.
“For example, I feel sad [because] whenever something bad happens, they say it’s foreigners. People being killed every day – it’s foreigners. People get hungry then start a strike then steal from shops to get what they want. Xenophobia makes people feel uncomfortable and some kill themselves because of depression. It makes people think of going back to their own country [but] it’s not easy because things are tough there as well.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Migrants and the world of work in SA: exposing the ‘job stealing’ lies of the xenophobes”
“If it wasn’t for the attacks, South Africa is a great home as I can get a good education… I have learnt so much being here, and I am happy for the opportunities I get here,” Ben says.
Almost all the children say they only feel safe at school as their teachers protect them and they feel like nothing bad will happen there. Most say they feel privileged to attend school, while noting the disadvantage of being in Joburg: high levels of crime.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Securitisation of migration and the rhetoric surrounding it fuels xenophobia”
A 13-year-old from Zimbabwe says: “Criminals should be arrested forever. Things would be much better. But the police just come as if to watch. Even during attacks, they do nothing, they don’t arrest anyone.”
Pragna Rugunanan, sociology professor at the University of Johannesburg, has said: “Leaders should be playing a decisive role to curb xenophobic rhetoric and create a socially cohesive society. Instead, the narrative by those in power seeks to propagate xenophobia and intolerance.”
Politicians blame foreigners for everything from joblessness to a breakdown in public services, but this “political instrumentalisation is used to create division and discord”, she said. DM168
* Children’s names have been changed.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.