Pauline* (name changed to protect her identity) found herself in hospital in Cape Town – alone and struggling with her mental health. Once discharged from hospital, it was likely that Pauline would end up homeless. Working in collaboration with Stikland Psychiatric Hospital and their social worker, the Welfare Team helped facilitate Pauline’s repatriation, back home to the love and support of her family.
Pauline lived in Lubumbashi, before she decided to follow her sister to South Africa. Not much is known about her life in Cape Town, except that it was not long before she started showing signs of schizophrenia – this had not happened before moving to South Africa.
When Pauline started displaying these signs, she was first admitted to Karl Bremer hospital and then to Stikland – a psychiatric hospital in Cape Town. Unknowingly, Stikland was where she would spend the next year of her life.
After four months of being hospitalised, Pauline was stable and ready to be discharged. The social worker reached out to Pauline’s sister, only to be told that they had moved to Durban and “wanted nothing to do with it.”
Pauline was undocumented, could not speak English and had now lost her support system. Because she was undocumented, she was unable to access a disability grant – needed for her to be placed in an adequate shelter. “There were multi-layered challenges around the client that made her particularly vulnerable” said the Welfare Team. If Pauline was discharged from Stikland, she would have been homeless – on the streets of a city that was not her home.
This was when the social worker contacted Scalabrini’s Welfare Team. The team would go on to work on this case for close to a year.
The Welfare Team arranged, with the help of the social worker, for Pauline to stay in the hospital until adequate plans were made. The team felt that the best option for Pauline would be to go home. Repatriation was put on the table – paid for by the hospital – and the Welfare Team kicked things into full gear, determined to get Pauline home, to the safety and support of her family.
“This was when we started tracing the family,” explains Etienne, Welfare Consultant. The language barrier had made it difficult for the social worker on Pauline’s case. Etienne, being from DRC himself, speaks French and Lingala, and was able to step in.
Through speaking to Pauline’s family back home, it was discovered that her sister had not moved to Durban at all – she was still in Cape Town, living in the same house. “She was rejected by her sister.”
Sadly, this is something that the Welfare Team has come across many times before – where the family members in South Africa reject the person in need of care. “We have a lot of clients who are in the hospital. There are so many clients in the same situations with no proper exit strategies. Sometimes they will just dump them outside the offices here without saying anything, “ says Jane, Welfare Manager.
Although Pauline’s sister did not want to help, her family in DRC were gravely concerned and wanted her home as soon as possible. To ensure Pauline’s safe arrival home, the Welfare Team took on the task of securing her travel documents, facilitating the process with the embassies and preparing her family for her arrival. This work took months.
It was decided that another sister would come meet Pauline in South Africa and take her home, but unfortunately the costs were too high for the family and Pauline had to travel alone – fortunately she was still feeling stable. Etienne worked in a hospital in the DRC – his experience proved vital in this case, as he was able to contact hospitals in Pauline’s home city. He could confidently make sure that she would be able to get the correct medication she needs.
On 23 November 2021, the team put Pauline on a plane where she bravely made her way back home. She was warmly welcomed by her family and is still of stable mental health – photos have been sent. The Welfare Team will continue to keep in touch with Pauline and her family to assist as best they can from South Africa. “Pauline’s case is a long-term case for us”. And a triumphant one too.
What Pauline went through in South Africa, is something that the Welfare Team has come across often. “It is very common that people develop mental health problems when they come to South Africa.”
“Many times, lack of preparedness, difficulties in adjusting to the new environment, the complexity of the local system, language difficulties, cultural disparities and adverse experiences would cause distress to migrants. Moreover, subsequently it has a negative impact on mental well-being of such population.” (Migration and Mental Health)
This has been one of the reasons that Welfare, specifically Etienne, started the Men’s Development Group at Scalabrini. To help combat mental health problems by providing a safe space for men to express what they are going through, share in others experiences and to know that they are not alone.
If you would like to find out more about the Men’s Development Group, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Today marks International Education Day
Education is key, education uplifts and builds individuals and society. We need to educate ourselves and others and see the humanity and dignity of all. Everyone in South Africa whatever their nationality, age gender or belief has the right to dignity and is equal before the law. The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town calls for greater Education on the need for Solidarity and Compassion toward our fellow person particularly in light of the recent spate of Xenophobic Rhetoric and Incidents in Gauteng. We can and must do better and learn from one another seeing the blessing and value of embracing diversity rather than pursing a divisive and destructive agenda. Let’s do better. I stand, we stand, with migrant workers and with migrants residing in South Africa being evicted from their homes or place of work and I ask, we ask, that we all do the same. The violence and discrimination have to stop and we must turn our focus to collectively challenging and changing our future.
Education is also a right for all. A right that extends to documented and undocumented children alike. We have come across children both migrant and South African denied access to schools based on their or their parent’s documentation. The Constitution is Clear, the Rights of the Child are paramount. The 2019 Centre for Child Law case and pursuant circular make it clear that children cannot be denied access to schools. As the school year begins let us educate and appraise ourselves of the right to education for all children in South Africa and ensure that no child is turned away.
Welcome to our A World In Motion series. The last two years have been a time when many people confronted the significance of mobility and borders – in our own personal lives and the lives of others. With much talk of people arriving in South Africa, it is also important to acknowledge that many South Africans move to other countries too. Our world is one that is in motion.
We chat to Siya, who moved from South Africa to Thailand
Why did you decide to move to Thailand?
I moved to Thailand because I was longing for an adventure. I needed a change of scenery and wanted to meet new people.
What do you do there?
I am an English and Drama teacher at a Thai Christian boarding school
Have you found it to be a welcoming country and city to live in?
Thailand is very welcoming. There is a big expat community in Bangkok. Thai people are also very welcoming – it is very common for them to greet you, ask ‘have you eaten?’ and offer you food. There are some difficult moments, but the good outweighs those times.
What are some things you have done to help with your integration into the country that you are now living in?
When I moved to Thailand, I took a Thai culture and language class. Skateboarding in the skateparks and befriending the Thai skaters helped me improve my Thai language abilities.
Do you think it is important to make an effort to integrate into the new society you find yourself in?
I think it’s important to integrate yourself. because integration leads to the understanding of different cultures. learning the language and understanding people
How is your life there different from your life in South Africa?
Life here is at times a little easier. Transportation is so convenient and it is cheap to travel around the country. The cultural differences can, at times, make things challenging, but you learn to work around that.
What do you miss about South Africa?
I miss my family and friends, the food, the people, music, Cape Town, and Jozi.
Do you see yourself moving back to South Africa in the future?
Yes, I want to live in Cape Town again for the climate, the beauty, the mountains and the ocean. I want to live in Johannesburg again for my family.
‘For sale’ signs line the once busy streets of Cape Town. While some business owners were forced to close down during the pandemic, others are innovating and upskilling in preparation for what is to come. At the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town (SCCT), Employment Access and Women’s Platform had to adapt their programmes to make sure that they were able to offer support. Their clients had to do the same.
Tourism forms a critical chunk of the South African economy: as of June 2020, the industry generated 740 000 direct jobs and more than 1.5 million indirect jobs. The hospitality industry in South Africa leans heavily on tourism to provide it with customers. Under lockdown, people were not able to travel easily and South Africa’s tourism industry took a monumental knock. The tourism industry has suffered a loss of billions of Rands and an estimated 300,000 jobs since the start of lockdown.
Curfews, alcohol bans and closed public spaces further contributed to many businesses closing. SCCT had to close its physical doors and move its programmes online. SCCT staff had to adapt quickly to be able to offer clients their assistance. “We were in shock and the clients were too,” explains Hylton Bergh, Employment Access manager. “We had over 300 clients a month coming to SCCT for assistance with creating a CV, applying for jobs or receiving training. In order to service them we had to move all our services and trainings online, but we also had to make sure that the clients understood what we were trying to do.”
The feelings of shock and uncertainty were echoed by Women’s Platform. “We thought it would just be two weeks and then things would go back to normal,” says Julia Oduol, Women’s Platform Livelihood Manager. The team had to react quickly to move their services online to ensure support for the women in their network. “We have more than 800 women in our database. Women in craft and hospitality were directly affected . Women in childcare were affected because mothers would stay home and not take their children to creche.” Women working in the beauty industry were also affected as hotels and spas began to lose business.
David Mwambayi, an Employment Access client, started as a security guard and is now the receptionist at a hotel in Cape Town. When the national lockdown came into effect, David was fortunately not one of the employees to be retrenched, but the hotel had to make adjustments for the staff that they were still able to employ. “The adjustment was instant – they started paying us 50% of our salaries.”
Monica Kalumba, a member of Women’s Platform, also faced difficulties when her and her husband’s restaurant was unable to operate. “We couldn’t do our job. We couldn’t sell anything. We were just indoors. We were just stuck.”
To make matters worse, finding new employment became increasingly difficult. “When permits expired, employers were not understanding of the fact that the Refugee Reception Offices were closed and clients could not renew their permits – people were asked to leave their jobs,” explains Hylton. “Many of our clients lack basic English and digital literacy skills. During the pandemic, these barriers was exacerbated.”
Max Ximbi, Employment Access’ former placement officer, was on the frontline of trying to help clients find employment. “On the one side there were no jobs and on the other side they were losing support to access the opportunities that were available. Firstly, no jobs, secondly no support. It was difficult to bridge that gap … Now, we are seeing opportunities coming back but competition is much higher.”
When looking at how programmes were able to support clients, Julia explains that Women’s Platform gained access to a grant from UNHCR to support 40 small businesses within the Women’s Platform network. “The goal of the project was to protect the food security of business owners and their employees throughout lockdown and to protect local economies by supplying much needed capital to restart their businesses post lockdown. There was a lot of creativity and innovation when it came to the small businesses that we work with. “
Upskilling has become a common theme amongst Employment Access and Women’s Platform clients. “People are trying to understand career awareness and trajectory for the first time. There has been a shift around ‘the plan’,” says Prashana Rampersad, who works with Employment Access and UpLearn. Clients are looking for opportunities to improve their skills. David echoed this; “for me, it was a time to learn something new.”
With his reduced working hours, David started studying through FUNZI – “I really loved the courses. They have opened my mind and helped me understand things that I struggled with before.”
The two SCCT programmes are working to assist clients who want to upskill. A large majority of women in Women’s Platform depend on tourism for their income. This focus is now shifting to the South African market and their wants – leading to more sustainable businesses. “There are opportunities being created between the pandemic”.
Employment Access is offering trainings in digital literacy, professional skills and FUNZI courses. The aim is to improve clients’ employability. “We have identified where they are lacking and we are doing something about that,” says Max. “We are trying to make people more proactive and to empower them.”
Armed with new knowledge, David’s confidence has grown. He acknowledges that the courses he completed during the lockdown and the assistance he got from Employment Access will help in reaching his future goals. “I would like to grow in this industry. Studying professional skills has had such an impact on my knowledge. One day I would like to own my own hotel.”
Monica embraced the time spent with her two sons in the lockdown and supported her family by baking and delivering birthday cakes. Her and her husband have been able to reopen their business and are feeling positive about the future. “I can see that my business is now growing more than what I was expecting. Last year I couldn’t see any future for the business. But now I am going somewhere.”
The Employment Access team are constantly looking for way to empower their clients. “It is up to our clients to grasp all opportunities. By doing this, we have seen many clients succeed in finding gainful employment or growing their businesses,” says Hylton. Within Women’s Platform, Julia has seen the women coming together to support one another. “Lockdown brought a lot of fear and loss, but it also brought a lot of positives that we continue to tap into.”
The team at The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town (SCCT) works with people who are migrants and refugees every day. With such deep expertise at hand, we take the opportunity to reflect on migration with them. This month we speak to Lea Liekefedt, who spent six months volunteering with Women’s Platform.
Growing up in a multi-cultural part of Germany and hearing stories about her grandmother being a refugee of war, Lea has always had an acute awareness of migration. At university, Lea studied political science and focused her research on the shortcomings of migration policies in Europe. It was during this time that Lea developed a critical stance on Europe’s existing migration policies.
Whilst volunteering at the ‘jungles’ in Calais, France, Lea realised that she wanted to “put theory into practice and support women on the ground. They are the most vulnerable to suffer from the consequences of involuntary migration and inadequate gender policies.” Lea has seen this to be true in Europe and South Africa. “There is a lot of rhetoric, but it is not practical.”
Volunteering with Women’s Platform allowed Lea to work directly with and learn from women on the move. “There are so many struggles that these women go through and the pandemic has put them into an even more vulnerable state.”
Women’s Platform acted quickly to adapt their programme, to ensure they could still support women in their network during South Africa’s lockdown. “Sometimes we were not able to reach everyone, even with all the effort that was put in,” explains Lea when talking about the challenges that Women’s Platform faced. “We know they are there and need support, but getting the access to them during the pandemic could sometimes be difficult due to internet connection for instance.” She also notes that even with these difficulties, “the women are experts at survival” and many were able to connect and build communities around them even during the isolating times.
The Women’s Platform team are motivated by the women themselves – their stories, their drive and their resilience. “They bring so much light and joy, despite the hardships that they face…We are able to relate on womanhood even though we all come from very different backgrounds.”
On finishing her placement with Women’s Platform, Lea has left South Africa feeling inspired by the women she was working with. For example, Lea met women in their 40’s focusing on starting their education again or starting new jobs. “As a young woman myself, it’s inspiring to see that.”
Lea has witnessed women within the platform who were once shy and timid, become confident community leaders. She emphasises that taking care of women’s needs and promoting independence paves the way to sustainable development in society. “When we focus on the stories told by those most affected by inequalities, we can have sustainable development and better policies.”
Lea supports governments’ development policy that recognises women as the fabric of society. “They bear the burden of supporting families and they carry the experiences of their families – there need to be more safe spaces for women and more support. This includes women who are originally from South Africa and women who are not.”
“Migration is part of our global history.” Drawing from her own personal experiences and from what she has learnt at SCCT, Lea has seen that migration across the world is inevitable. She believes that seeing migration as an opportunity and allowing skilled women from other countries to work in their professions would benefit the South African economy. “I noticed that there is such a bureaucratic burden for women who are highly skilled to get access to jobs because of immigration and documentation issues.”
Within the Women’s Platform, Lea has met a woman who got her education in South Africa and has qualified as a teacher, but is unable to work due to her documentation. “Great teachers are needed everywhere, especially female teachers who introduce students to new cultures.” She has met many women within the platform who want to be active in and beneficial to South African communities. There are nurses from DRC who aim to educate people on HIV/AIDS and other women who run their own schemes to feed the homeless. “That’s what’s important about Women’s Platform. It’s a journey. During the journey, the women get a sense of community, but also a sense of responsibility to society.”
Lea is about to start her Masters in Development Studies. “With the work at Scalabrini and supporting the Women’s Platform, I hope to play a little role in re-establishing a sense of fairness and opportunity in a practical way.”
Two women from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola describe women’s rights and realities in their home country compared with their experiences in South Africa.
More and more women are migrating. Research shows that the number of women migrating to South Africa has quadrupled since 1990. From available statistics, we can deduce that there are roughly 1.7 million women who have migrated to South Africa. Women who migrate are faced with added barriers to documentation and services – and are more likely to face challenges finding work. These issues are recognized by the international community and have resulted in various efforts to address this – such as the Sustainable Development Goals working towards gender equality and the ending of all forms of discrimination against women and girls.
Several international legal frameworks exist specifically to protect and uplift women in the African context. For example, in 2003, the African Union adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. States undertook to ‘combat all forms of discrimination against women through appropriate legislative, institutional and other measures’, as well as providing educational measures, laws and action to end such discrimination.
The Women’s Platform at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town brings together women through training and development programmes. The platform works with women who have migrated to South Africa from all corners of Africa.
Mary (not her real name) came to South Africa when she was 11 years old. She remembers fleeing the war in Angola with her family when ‘one day, a tank rolled into our yard. The soldiers just bent the burglar bars at the window and raided our house.’ She has lived in South Africa several decades and considers herself African above all else. ‘When people ask me, I say that I am an African who just resides in South Africa,’ she explains. ‘I tell them to go back to their family tree and they will see that we are all a mix and inter-related somehow. Self-identity is defined by who you are simply as a person.’
Nadia (not her real name) fled the war zone in the Democratic Republic of Congo and sought safety in South Africa. Building up a life in South Africa has been very difficult. She is undertaking courses with the Women’s Platform in a hope of finding work.
Mary’s mother – who has vivid memories of life in Angola – forms much of Mary’s ability to compare realities for women in South Africa and Angola.
“My mum has a motto,” explains Mary. “She says, ‘when you are in the country where everyone is dancing on one leg, you do the same’. The rhythm of South Africa is that there are women’s rights.” Indeed, the need and ability of women to make business in South Africa is an important comparative point for Mary. “In your home country, you can relax a bit more as you have family around. Here in South Africa, you need to have a purpose as a woman; you must push and make a living. Men cannot decide where you live or what work you do.”
Inspired by her mother’s tenacious approach to business, Mary is using her learnings and experiences at Women’s Platform to become a ‘humble leader’ and seek opportunities to empower other entrepreneurial women.
Nadia echoes Mary’s recognition of wider women’s rights in South Africa – but also sees that in reality, this is limited. “South Africa values and promotes women’s rights, but in reality, it is difficult as I don’t feel like a citizen.” The barriers faced as a non-citizen in South Africa make it difficult to compare access to rights back home. Within her own family life, however, the woman’s role has changed since being in South Africa. “Back home, women have no say in front of men,” she reflects. “There are even certain foods that women cannot eat, for example. Here, I have freedom of speech. It is totally different in Congo DRC. When you want to raise your voice as a woman in Congo DRC, they will give you names.”
However, there are many similar struggles faced by women in both places that Nadia has lived. Violence against women in DRC and South Africa, although different in its nature and context, is a threat and danger that has followed Nadia during her migration.
Nadia is keen to see women speak out about gender-based violence. She notices that even the Congolese community in South Africa speak privately about the violence they face but are scared to speak publicly. “My biggest message to tell women across Africa is not to fear. We need to come together and stand up to these fears that we have as women.”
Migration was greatly affected by the South African national lockdown. Initially, travelers from ‘high-risk’ countries were banned from entering South Africa and, during parts of the lockdown, all of South Africa’s land borders were completely closed.
For international migrants already living in South Africa, the announcement of the national lockdown brought confusion and fear around their documentation and legal stay in the country during the pandemic.
‘I cannot ignore the expiry date on my refugee status’
Around 188,000 people in South Africa hold asylum seeker documentation, and around 173,000 people hold refugee documentation. Asylum seeker documentation is typically valid for anything between one and six months.
Therefore, by September 2020, every single person on asylum seeking documentation in South Africa would hold an expired permit.
‘For me it was scary,’ says Muholeza, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). ‘I cannot ignore the expiry date on my refugee status’. Concerned at how the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) would deal with expiring asylum and refugee documentation, Muholeza awaited announcements from the government. ‘I had no idea how they are going to deal with the numbers of people who have expired.’
A blanket extension
Three months after the initial lockdown was announced, on 10 June 2020, the South African government announced in Gazetted Amended Directions that all asylum and refugee documentation that had expired since the beginning of lockdown – 15 March 2020 – would be subject to a blanket extension for a period of four months. We welcomed this announcement as it provided clarity for many of our clients and the wider asylum and refugee population of South Africa. This extension was extended another four times (July 2020, September 2020, January 2021 and most recently in March 2021). Currently, refugee and asylum documentation that has expired on or since 15 March 2020 is considered valid until 30 June 2021.
Accessing services during the pandemic
In theory, this blanket extension meant that people holding recently expired asylum or refugee documents in South Africa would be able to continue accessing banking, employment and other services. For many people, this indeed worked. For example, The Banking Association of South Africa confirmed that their banks did not automatically restrict such bank accounts as a result of expired asylum or refugee documentation. Of some help was a specific announcement by the Department of Home Affairs that ‘all the rights, benefits and obligations of asylum seekers and refugees remain the same.’ For many clients, blockages in accessing banking or employment were lifted once the government regulations were printed and presented by the client.
However, for some of our clients, accessing services with seemingly expired documentation was difficult. As the lockdown lifted slightly, some wondered why the Refugee Reception Offices could not reopen, considering other services and offices were beginning to open their doors. ‘, I could not see a reasonable argument why Refugee Reception Offices were still closed when they opened up public transport, churches and Home Affairs civic services. The same measures that were applied in those areas could have been applied at the Refugee Reception Office too, such as distancing and 50% capacity.’
Providing remote assistance
During the pandemic, Scalabrini’s Advocacy Programme provided information to clients remotely, using its Advocacy Hotline. Initially, many clients could not access banking, or were facing problems securing their employment, due to the seemingly expired documentation that they were holding. “Failure to provide an updated Section 22 and Section 24 documents meant an inability to access banking services,” recalls Ellen Chirima, Advocacy Officer at Scalabrini, who worked on the Advocacy Hotline. “People were concerned about losing their jobs due to expired documentation and students were worried that their studies would be disrupted due to the failure to submit up to date documents”.
Governmental directives that confirmed the blanket extension for recently expired asylum and refugee documentation assisted such clients. “The blanket extensions provided relief to an extent,” says Ellen, who estimated that about 70% of clients she encountered were able to access previously blocked services once they had the government directives at hand. “For example, in cases where clients had been stopped from going to work, we would reach out to the employer and explain the validity of the Section 22 or Section 24 documents with the backing of the Directions.”
Post-covid: A new online system and mixed feelings
Prior to the pandemic, extending an asylum or refugee document at one of the government’s Refugee Reception Offices was a lengthy task. Muholeza describes it as being a ‘full day commitment.’ In some cases, it required travelling long distances.
A recent report found that 60% of asylum respondents’ adjudications took over five years and – as asylum documentation is issued for anything between one and six months – this would mean multiple trips to Refugee Reception Offices. Eddy (not his real name), also from DRC, has been in the asylum system for 12 years. ‘Before the pandemic, I was having to go to Home Affairs every month. I used to arrive at 3am, and that way I knew I would get inside.’
The most recent DHA directives point to a new system, that moves away from clients going to the Refugee Reception Offices in person. DHA has developed an online system that will allow for the extension of asylum and refugee documentation. (See our infographic here for details on the online system.)
‘For someone like me, who does everything online, I think it will be a relief,’ says Muholeza. ‘But I am still skeptical around it. I can only hope that their service will be efficient.‘ Eddy shares a similar sentiment. ‘For some people, it will be good. But, before covid-19, in Pretoria (Refugee Reception Office), the system was often offline. This online system is fine but we know Home Affairs is the ‘king of offline’ – so I am concerned about this.’
Post-covid: A new online system and mixed feelings
The online renewal system is up and running. Documents are issued using a password-protected PDF. Whilst we welcome this move to an online system, we have yet to see how it will function with larger numbers of applicants. Awareness around the use of these online-issued refugee and asylum documents needs to be heightened as services like banks, schools and workplaces become accustomed to using these documents and verifying them using the email addresses on the document itself.
If you want more information about this, please read our infographic on the online asylum/refugee extension system, and keep updated on our news page or social media.
Thousands of clients walk through Scalabrini’s doors every year. As staff, we have different types of interaction with each client. In some cases, different teams get involved to find a solution. Some stories stay with you forever. Appo will remain someone particularly important to us as a team.
This is in memory of Appo, and is dedicated to his family, wherever they might be.
Falling sick far from home
Appo* was from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He migrated to South Africa in 2011. He started a life in Cape Town, but the following year in 2012, he suffered a gunshot wound to the head and his chin was damaged. The wound resulted in cancer, affecting his face. He was treated in the hospital and underwent surgery and different therapies. Appo was becoming increasingly sick and, unable to work, he also lost his job. Sadly, the hospital told him there was nothing more that could be done. Recognizing that he was terminally ill, Appo began to want to return to his homeland.
A final wish to return home
Despite it being uncomfortable to move, Appo got onto public transport and often came to Scalabrini. When Appo decided that he wished to return home for his final months, he approached the Welfare Team at Scalabrini for assistance. At that point, they could not assist him in returning home; and as Appo had no other means to leave, it seemed that Appo was trapped in South Africa.
He was renting a small room and Scalabrini assisted with transport, and rent, and was helped by his local church. It was increasingly difficult for Appo to move around and to speak, because the illness was affecting his facial abilities. Finally, Welfare was put in touch with a private donor who was willing to fund the flight home.
One would imagine that the return home of a terminally ill person would be a relatively simple, smooth process. But assisting with the return of Appo took the full force of the Welfare and Advocacy teams combined.
Ensuring a dignified return
Normally, returning to your country of origin is a complex administrative process; you must hold official documentation to both leave South Africa and enter your country. The Advocacy Programme worked with the Department of Home Affairs to cancel Appo’s asylum documentation – a process that typically takes months. Simultaneously, the Congolese authorities had to recognize him as a citizen in issuing emergency travel documentation. For each of these processes, many other documents are required. Above this, the Welfare and Advocacy Teams worked to ensure he would be accepted on the flight as he was at stage four cancer. This process required Appo to come in and out of Scalabrini and to various places, which must have been exhausting for him.
Finally, after many hurdles and difficulties – which we were all aware fell mainly on Appo’s shoulders – Appo was on the plane to DRC. It was his first time on a plane, and he was alone and not well. Complications led to him being denied entry to the connecting flight in Johannesburg, and the Scalabrini team in Johannesburg were able to assist him in providing shelter and medical assistance before rearranging his boarding on the next flight to DRC.
Finally, Etienne received a call from a Congolese number. It was an official at the airport in Congo, who called to say that Appo was at the airport but no one was there to collect him. We believe that his family, with whom we had been in touch, had not been able to afford the journeys to the airport from the village and had perhaps suffered a break-down in communication as Appo was not on two previous flights that he was meant to be on.
The church network was alerted and a local priest from Lubumbashi was able to collect and host Appo. We asked to speak to him, but the journey seemed to have exhausted him as the priest told us that Appo was not able to speak anymore. Such a journey is exhausting for a person in good health, let alone someone in Appo’s state. Appo stayed at the church in Lubumbashi, where he was looked after by the church staff as best they could.
Weeks later, we received news that Appo had passed away. It brought us sadness and, to some degree, relief – because Appo was in pain and all he wanted to do was go home. Whilst he was not with his family, he at least passed away in his hometown of Lubumbashi, on his own soil, and was not alone.
We never got to speak again to his family, but we often think of them and wish them the best, as well as everyone who helped Appo along his way – from airport officials to priests. In memory of Appo, who fought until the end.
*Names have been changed to protect his identity.
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.
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.
‘As an outsider, literature has always been my home.’
‘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.
An unticked box: living without an ID number
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.
The cessation of refugee status
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.
Borrowed time and piles of books
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.
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.
Emerging African writers taking center stage
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.’