Critical Skills: A documentary

South Africa is losing out on the skills of refugees living in the country. Critical Skills, our new documentary released on Labour Day 2021, looks at the struggles that skilled refugees face in order to practice in South Africa. Complex requirements result in doctors and vets working as trench-diggers and meat-packers. The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town is advocating for improved systems to recognize skilled refugees, thus allowing them to practice and the South African economy to benefit from their qualifications.

Critical Skills follows Dr Ntumba, a veterinary doctor from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who specializes in agropastoralism, and Dr Futu, a medical doctor also from DRC, who managed a hospital in the conflict-ridden Eastern provinces of Congo providing care to victims of war. Both Dr Ntumba and Dr Futu left DRC due to political instability.

Simply unable to get their skills recognised in South Africa, Dr Ntumba works packing meat in a supermarket and Dr Futu finds small jobs such as trench-digging. ‘Emotionally, you feel diminished,’ explains Dr Ntumba. ‘Without practicing, I will lose my skills. South Africa is actually losing … they should have used me.’

Paper battles in South Africa

The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) is the sole authority to recognize foreign qualifications in South Africa. Dr Julie Reddy, acting CEO of SAQA, and Mr Navin Vasudev, Deputy Director, who feature in the documentary, evaluate foreign qualifications against the South African National Qualifications Framework. Yearly, SAQA evaluates around 25,000 foreign qualifications.

Applicants to this SAQA process require a host of documents – including every original transcript of each year passed at college or university. For refugees who have fled their countries due to war or persecution, having all these documents is very difficult. Universities in certain areas (especially those affected by conflict) may have shut down, barring SAQA’s ability to verify information.

A pilot project: evaluation of incomplete documentation of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa

In response to refugees and asylum seekers’ lack of original documents, SAQA has been working on alternative ways to recognise asylum and refugee applicants. This culminated in SAQA drawing up an addendum that allows for a special dispensation to recognise qualifications of refugees and asylum seekers. SAQA ran a pilot project in November 2019 to allow for alternative means of verifying and evaluating qualifications whilst allowing for stringent checks. 

Professional councils: the next hurdle

If SAQA recognition is achieved, another hurdle is faced by foreign applicants: registration with a relevant professional council. This is a cumbersome and expensive process – sitting the South African Veterinary Council exam, for example, costs around 34 000 ZAR. On top of this, most professional bodies only accept refugee documentation, and not asylum seeker documentation. (A recent report found that 60% of asylum respondents’ adjudications took over five years – so many asylum-seekers spend considerable lengths of time on asylum documentation.)

Three ideas for South African authorities

Hylton Bergh, Employment Access Manager at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, works to ensure asylum seeker, refugee and migrant clients are able to practice their skills in South Africa. In the documentary, he explains three changes that could ensure an improved process for the employment of qualified refugees in South Africa:

Professional councils need to be made aware of the circumstances of foreign nationals and their value, both monetary and intellectual, to the various professional sectors – which includes allowing asylum seekers to register with professional bodies.

The South African government could reconsider BBBEE policies, especially as it relates to the Critical Skills List, because refugees from elsewhere in Africa currently do not contribute to BBBEE points.

South African industries could advocate for changes to the above policies because the more skilled our work force the better the economic growth for our country.


Hylton Bergh

Employment Access Manager

Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town

Navin Vasudev

Deputy Director-Verification Foreign Qualifications Evaluation and Advisory Services

South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA)

Lotte Manicom

Advocacy Communications Manager

Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town


Writing her own way

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Geruza, who arrived in South Africa from Angola as a two-year-old, has carved a life in Johannesburg’s metropolis. Faced with documentation and identity challenges, Geruza escaped into literature. Her writing skills have now led her to an opportunity to study Creative Writing at Masters level.

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In Angola, wars raged for 27 years. Amidst that conflict was Maria, a single mother of three young children. She fled Angola’s civil war with her children, making her way southwards to South Africa.

One of her young children was Geruza. ‘We arrived in South Africa in 1995, when I was only two years old,’ Geruza explains. ‘I have no memory of Angola or our arrival here.’ Within the metropolis of Johannesburg, Geruza’s mother worked several jobs to provide for her family.

Her mother’s determination to succeed was passed down to Geruza – who drew from her mother’s story for her own strength. ‘It didn’t seem to matter how difficult things got, my siblings knew that as long as we had each other, we could overcome anything.’ Together, her family navigated life as refugees in early democratic South Africa. ‘In South Africa, having pride in one’s cultural heritage has always been part of the fabric of the nation.’ Neither fully South African nor fully Angolan, Geruza struggled to define her heritage, and with time found her roots within her family unit.

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‘As an outsider, literature has always been my home.’

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‘As a teenager, I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in. I struggled a lot and spent my school lunch breaks huddled in the school library,’ she explains. ‘And because English was the language my siblings and I used at home, coupled with all the books I was reading – I excelled in English literature and creative writing at school.’

The school library offered a refuge for Geruza. ‘Writing has always allowed me to be me – it was an outlet where I could express my identity as I experienced it,’ she explains. ‘Reading introduced me to new worlds, experiences and people with stories very similar to my journey.’ Immersing herself in literature as a young girl, Geruza had already begun a journey that would pave the way to her future career.

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An unticked box: living without an ID number

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Geruza worked hard at school, and was awarded a year’s merit bursary to study at the University of Johannesburg. Propelled by a lived experience of injustice, she enrolled to study law. ‘My passion for social justice stemmed from the injustice I experienced living as a refugee. We were denied so much and I saw and experienced the impact. I wanted to be empowered with knowledge, to bring about change.’ she says. Once at university – aside from volunteering at human rights NGOs – she held down three jobs whilst balancing the full-time degree.

But this hard work was not enough to overcome certain administrative barriers. ‘My mum raised us saying that if we work hard, we will do well. So, my siblings and I went through life always ticking the check boxes. But the one box that no one told us about was having a South African ID number.’

Crushingly, in her second year of the law degree, during a module about the requirements to be admitted as an attorney, Geruza realized that she would not be able to practice law in South Africa due to her documentation status.

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The cessation of refugee status

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In May 2013, the South African government announced the cancellation, or cessation, of all Angolans’ refugee statuses in the country. This affected an estimated 8,000 Angolan people on refugee status at the time. Geruza and her family were some of the 2,000 people that opted to remain in South Africa on a ‘special permit.’ The permit was known as the ‘Angolan Cessation Permit’ (ACP). It was pasted into an Angolan passport and it was valid for two years.

‘I was concerned because my degree was 4 years and I needed a permit that reflected this.’ The ACP permit expired in 2015 – before she was due to graduate. Geruza pushed to complete her studies, with the stress of knowing she could not practice law thereafter, and that her permit was soon expiring. ‘I felt that I was always on borrowed time, due to the papers expiring … but I was only the second member of my family to go to varsity so I pushed through’. She graduated with an LLB in 2015.

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Borrowed time and piles of books

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In that same year, all ACP permits expired. The Department of Home Affairs did not intend to extend them, and the Angolan former refugee population was faced with an uncertain future in South Africa. For Geruza, whose family had been in South Africa for over 20 years and who had no living memory of Angola, this was an impossible situation as there was nothing to return to Angola to.

Unable to work or study, she immersed herself in her writing. ‘The year that we were waiting on decision on our documentation, I escaped back into books and wrote vigorously.’ It was during this time that Geruza really grew and developed her writing portfolio.

The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town advocated for permanent residency to be granted to ACP permit holders. Following a lengthy legal negotiation, the Department of Home Affairs agreed to allow ACP applicants to make application to permanent residency in South Africa. Geruza, who is well accustomed to the struggles of remaining on valid documentation in South Africa, heard that The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town was collecting applications for permanent residency. She and her family took a 19-hour bus from Johannesburg to Cape Town to submit their paperwork. And, when a new permit was granted (the Angolan Special Permit), they again returned by bus to apply for this new permit, and then again to collect the permit. The Angolan Special Permits expire on 31 December 2021.

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California calling

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Working as a freelance editor and copywriter, Geruza managed to support herself and her family. Geruza found comfort and inspiration in books by similarly placed people – people who had fled as refugees, who had to be headstrong, who survived the uncertainty. As Geruza describes, ‘living the life of a refugee means everything is uncertain. You are taught to take what opportunities comes and make something of it.’

In 2019, one such opportunity came to Geruza: a friend told her about a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Chapman University in California and advised her to apply. Geruza submitted her portfolio of writing – much of it compiled under the stress of a semi-documented state in South Africa – and awaited a response.

She has been accepted onto the Master’s program with partial funding. Geruza is determined to complete her MFA and has made applications to source the remaining funds – using the determination that was perhaps set in her by the same determination of her own mother, back in the 1990s.

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Emerging African writers taking center stage

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Geruza is due to be in California in August this year. Her experience in South Africa has set the tone for her future plans. ‘I want to get into publishing and seek to promote emerging African writers – encouraging them to tell their stories.’

Throughout the stormy landscapes of her journey as a refugee, it is Geruza’s family unit that has offered sanctuary and a strong sense of identity. The prospect of leaving her family for a brief period is daunting. ‘I get emotional when I think about starting a new chapter without my family at my side. But I truly believe there’s a reason I was called to write – and I look forward to becoming a master of my craft.’


New perspectives on being a leader

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To Aza, a leader has always been “a person in the spotlight” – someone who leads from the front. Joining UNITE has given Aza a new perspective on what it means to be a leader. She now believes that a leader is someone who pushes others forward and offers them the support to believe in themselves. This has been Aza’s experience of UNITE. Although 2021 has had an uncertain start, Aza is looking forward to being able to begin her first year of university.  

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Aza was in her final year of high school when South Africa announced its first Covid-19 cases. Schools closed down and students were left uncertain. “It was hard to believe at first!” explains Aza. “This was my matric year – how could this happen?” Aza felt like her life had come to a standstill and she was filled with feelings of frustration.  

Although times were difficult, Aza learnt to value the things that she has. She was surrounded by support structures; her family, UNITE and other school clubs. Aza knew that when times were difficult, she could contact any of the UNITE facilitators. For example, when Aza and her family were running low on food supplies, UNITE quickly stepped in to assist. “I felt very supported by UNITE during the lockdown.”  

Aza has been provisionally accepted to study Business Management, but she is waiting for her matric results to be released before she can get started. “It seems like it’s still 2020. I feel like my year hasn’t really started because I haven’t started university.” 

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Aza joined UNITE as a way to combat low confidence. “In primary school, I’d always seen myself as inferior. When I got to high school, I wanted to change that – I wanted people to recognise that I can make a difference.” 

“I grew up and saw other learners with determination and drive, but I didn’t have that. I wanted people to recognise me and I wanted to recognise myself.”  

Through activities and sessions, UNITE “encouraged [us] to be a person who looks at things differently.” This shift in perspective has encouraged Aza to pursue her life goals. “From that moment, it made me realise that I can do anything that I put my mind to. All of these teachings have made me realise that it’s all about being you. You can add value to the world just by being yourself.” Because of this, Aza began to see herself as someone who can make a positive impact: a leader.  

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Aza has always viewed a leader as a person who leads from the front. But in Grade 11, Aza’s perspective on this changed. In that year, it came to the surface that Aza had been struggling with substance abuse. The day that she was caught smoking at school, she was heading to Scalabrini for a UNITE meeting. “I told myself to accept the fact that they were going to kick me out [of UNITE], I am supposed to be a leader yet I am doing these things.”  

 Instead of being kicked out of UNITE, she was shown love, support and encouragement. In what was a collaboration between UNITE, her school (Heideveld) and her parents, Aza was given support and the strength to stop smoking. “You know when you have a line – something that prevents people from getting close to you – that day the line was completely broken. I knew that I was loved.”  

“We all make mistakes but being given the opportunity to understand the causes of those mistakes – or difficulties – and be able to overcome them with support is what matters most” says Jade, the manager of UNITE. UNITE has been able to use this as a learning tool – not only for Aza, but UNITE as a whole.  

It was after this that Aza’s idea of what a leader should be, changed. “UNITE has taught me that leadership is not about leading from the front, it is about pushing others to go forward. It is not about you or the spotlight. It’s about being there for others like UNITE has been for me. It’s made remarkable changes in my life. It’s been a long journey and I’ve experienced some real family.”