South Africa


‘We have lost our moral compasses’ — understanding the spike in migrant numbers and xenophobia

‘We have lost our moral compasses’ — understanding the spike in migrant numbers and xenophobia
From left: University of Johannesburg Professor and Vice-Dean Research in the Faculty of Humanities Professor Pragna Rugunanan. (Photo: Supplied) | Daily Maverick multimedia journalist Tevya Turok Shapiro. (Photo: Supplied) | Filmmaker and director Mohamed Kordofani. (Photo: Gallo Images / Gareth Cattermole)

With an increasing number of wars globally, there has been a spike in the number of migrants seeking refuge in other countries away from conflict zones. The webinar seeks to find the root causes of migration and escalating xenophobic behaviour in South Africa. Experts suggest ways in which the government and the rest of the world should approach these challenges to avoid major destruction of human rights in the long run.

With an entertaining and creative twist to it, Daily Maverick’s multimedia journalist Tevya Turok Shapiro hosted a webinar alongside filmmaker and director Mohamed Kordofani, and University of Johannesburg Professor and Vice Dean Research in the Faculty of Humanities, Prof Pragna Rugunanan. 

The discussion studied two films — The Old Oak directed by Ken Loach and Goodbye Julia directed by Kordofani — as reference points to the ongoing war in Sudan, the causes and impact of migration and the current level of South Africa’s xenophobic state. The panel highlights a number of socio-political issues depicted in admirable filmmaking.

Kordofani’s Goodbye Julia, which focuses on Sudan since 2005, opened the European Film Festival alongside Oscar nominees, Cannes winners and other thought-provoking films, including The Old Oak, during the celebratory 10th edition of the European Film Festival between 12-22 October in  South Africa. 

Personal stories and experiences

Although he refers to Goodbye Julia as a fictional story, Kordofani tells the tale of Sudan’s dire situation through his characters by way of his own lived experiences. Racism and inequality are significantly displayed in the film, provoking the viewer to question their own morals. 

“The film in general is a story about me. I kind of feel naked when I watch the film because it is so much me in every sense and this is why you would find that the perspective of the film is of a northern Arab. I find that I have changed quite a bit since 2005 until 202 and I have changed in so many aspects”.

Goodbye Julia opens at the beginning of Sudan’s independence in 2005 which brought democracy to the Southern people who were oppressed during colonisation. To give context to his story, Kordofani revealed that what everyone reads and sees about the situation in Sudan through the media is only the tip of the iceberg. 

“Sudan’s problem is a very long and complex problem that started way before 200 years ago when the slave trade started in Sudan up until…70 years ago and when the colonisers came they made the problems even worse because they segregated the two communities — North and South — and enforced a close territory law where Northern Arabs were not allowed to go to the South”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Situation in Sudan ‘spiralling out of control’ after four months of war- UN

Kordofani explained that the segregation deepened even after colonisation and that the only “positive” thing that came out of colonisation was the education of Northern Arabs who now have more privilege and deem themselves superior to the Southern Arabs. 

Migration matters

Kordofani’s film is quite similar to Ken Loach’s The Old Oak which focuses on the interaction between Syrian refugees arriving in a village in the UK and local residents, while Goodbye Julia explores how xenophobia can drive migration. Inspired by the two films, Rugunanan spoke about the forces that drive migration in Africa and whether or not they are similar to those in the Middle East.

Rugunanan pointed out that Goodbye Julia is “a deeply evocative movie that details the complexities of migration, family, community, integration, gender roles and patriarchy but there are also many complexities about discrimination, persecution and religion”.

There are various reasons for migration. A migrant would generally move for reasons triggered by their circumstances or way of life. Migrants often search for greener pastures, education and jobs to provide for their families. Environmental or climate change factors are also increasingly becoming issues that cause people to flee their countries.

Read more in Daily Maverick: East Africa and the Horn light the way for climate migrants

“There are many other extreme reasons like poverty, war, violence. We keep saying there is a lot of migration out of Africa in fact there is much more migration from Southeast Asia or South America than there is from Africa. In Africa, we have a lot of internal migration as opposed to intercontinental migration and so those are some of the discrepancies that need to be broken down about migration from Africa”, said Rugunanan.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA’s immigration crisis needs tough but rational solutions – here are a few

Due to the war in Sudan between military factions, Kordofani has himself become a migrant with about five million other Sudanese seeking refuge within Sudan or beyond. 

“They would either stay in Sudan or go to Egypt because of the culture and the religion is closest than Chad or Ethiopia or Kenya”, said Kordofani. “Since April, I could not go to Sudan, everything I have is in a suitcase that I took with me to Beirut so I found myself as an immigrant who still does not have a home”, said Kordofani.

Xenophobia and persecution

Looking into the severe reasons why people evacuate their countries and resort to migrating exposes the concept of xenophobia as inhumane, with Rugunan pointing out that “we have lost our moral compass”. 

South Africa is home to Operation Dudula — an organisation which turned into a political party that dedicates its services to violently threatening migrants. The party also blames many of South Africa’s social issues on the presence of migrants in the country.

Kordofani urges everyone to help combat the refugee crisis by spreading awareness and valuable information on how and where to get the necessary resources while Rugunanan motivates the world to adopt Canada’s style of welcoming refugees. DM


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