information on asylum in south africa

Information about asylum in South Africa

Legislative Change on Gender Based Violence and Femicide


On the 28th of January this year the President assented to laws that strengthen the fight against gender based violence (GBV) . He heralded this as a major step forward in fighting against the GBV epidemic and in placing the rights and needs of victims at the centre of interventions  


The President assented to: 

  1. the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act Amendment Bill, 
  2.  the Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Bill, and 
  3. the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill. 

Between the 2019/2020 period South African Police Services (SAPS) crime statistics reported rape and sexual assault cases were 42 289 and 7 749 respectively . Covid-19 led to an increase in GBV internationally and domestically as many women were confined in their homes with their abusers. Migrant women and girls face compounding levels of vulnerability and harm in the form of xenophobia, racism and gender-based violence. Migrant women and girls, particularly those that are undocumented or have expired documentation are hesitant and unlikely to report GBV given their migration status. Migrant women in South Africa and across the African continent encounter a number of challenges in accessing their right to safety and security and protection against GBVF . It is hoped that these amendments to the law will protect and promote the rights of migrant women and girls and make recourse more accessible.  

The first amendment to the law improves the prevention of further sex crimes, especially to protect children, by expanding the scope of the National Register for Sex Offenders (NRSO), increasing the period in which an offender’s particulars must remain in the NRSO, and expanding the list of persons considered vulnerable. These are commendable protection measures with the potential to yield positive results if effectively implemented along with other measures such as improving the conviction rate, and successfully rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders into the community 

The second amendment aims to reduce secondary victimisation of vulnerable persons in court proceedings through allowing for intermediaries and evidence to be given through audio-visual links in proceedings other than criminal proceedings. It is a sad reality that survivors re-experience traumatic events when they report their ordeal to the police, testify, get cross-examined, and face their perpetrators in court. Research has shown that secondary victimisation has negative health consequences, and it discourages survivors from reporting. The new changes to the law make seeking justice less onerous for survivors. In addition, the law tightens bail and minimum sentencing provisions in the context of GBV. This could bring relief to survivors with fear of and at risk of re-victimisation if the perpetrator is released on bail and would prevent a repeat of circumstances like those in the infamous Carmichele v Minister of Safety and Security and Minister of Justice case . Extending sentences should be coupled with improvements in identification, arrest and prosecution of perpetrators. To quote from retired judge Justice Edwin Cameroon, “what inhibits crime is certainty: certainty of follow up, certainty of detection, certainty of arrest, arraignment, prosecution, and certainty of punishment. In all this, how long the sentence is plays very little role” . In closing on this point, it is in the best interests of society that the criminal justice system is accessible, reliable and informed by research as opposed to merely calling for the heavy hand of the law.    

Lastly, the third amendment to the law introduces two major changes in the legal framework of GBV. These are the introduction of electronic applications for protection orders and the removal of the “imminence” requirement under Section 8(4) of the Domestic Violence Act 116 (1998).  For the latter, in practice it means that a survivor can report a violation of their protection order without being expected to prove that they will be killed if the police do not make an arrest immediately. Previously the police had to use their discretion to judge whether the threat of harm was likely to happen, and that the only way to prevent it was by making an arrest, even in instances where there was a protection order in place and warrant of arrest. With the pandemic context and the aftermath of high levels of lock down, these implementations are more than welcome since they will facilitate enhanced survivor protection. Secondly there is an expansion of definitions of “controlling behaviour” and “coercive behaviour” and “domestic violence” to include spiritual abuse, elder abuse, coercive behaviour, controlling behaviour, and/or exposing/subjecting children to certain listed behaviours. While the expansion is positive, it is important to consider the implications of some of these on the under-resourced police service (SAPS) responsible for policing a wide range of work. Overall, this amendment is certainly a significant positive step towards handling GBVF and adds to the protection of GBV survivors and those at risk. 

As Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town we applaud the President and legislature and all individuals involved in the process leading to the signing into law of these legislative amendments.   We witness first-hand the consequences of GBV in our work with refugees and migrants some of whom have sought asylum in South Africa to flee persecution targeted at them on the basis of their gender. Some migrants are survivors of GBV in their country of origin and/or in South Africa. It is hoped that this article will assist in raising awareness of the new amendments to the legislation and help in their implementation. We strongly believe everyone has a part to play in eradicating the scourge of GBV and Femicide in South Africa, on the continent and across the world.  




Scalabrini Centre launches ‘Speaking in the Gap’

An exploratory project on bridging the personal and the political through creative advocacy work

This report reflects on the research process and findings of a short study designed to explore how the personal, lived experiences of marginalised communities can be creatively expressed with the aim of informing, shaping, and catalysing political and high-level advocacy work.

“The stories themselves were shared by participants in participatory research processes and developed in group sessions with the facilitators. Some have been documented through arts-based, visual methods, while others have found a home in the encounters and moments shared in the groups.”

This is a report with many authors, from the facilitators – Yusra Price, Jill Van Dugteren, Xoli Fuyani and Shingi West – to the Director of the Scalabrini Centre, Giulia Treves, and the Scalabrini staff, and to all the women and girls who participated in the creative processes and shared experiences and stories. The commitment, hard work and willingness to engage by all those involved made the writing of this report the easy part, and I am extremely grateful to everyone. As this report shows, there is no obvious or one way of thinking through creative advocacy or of sharing and engaging with the stories that need to be heard. There are also far more questions than there are answers. The hope, then, is that this is a starting point and that many more creative, vibrant, and meaningful engagements are to come.

Covid-19 Lock-down: Important information for refugees and migrants in South Africa

This webpage centralizes information that is important for refugee and migrant communities to know about during the Covid-19 lock-down. Please contact us on Facebook or at with your questions.


The Banking Association of South Africa confirmed that their banks do not automatically restrict such bank accounts as a result of expired asylum or refugee documentation.

Asylum seeker permits or refugee status which expired during lockdown (from 15 March 2020 onwards) are considered to have been extended up to, and including, 30 June 2021 (see “Documentation” below). If you are having difficulty accessing your bank account because your asylum seeker permit or refugee status expired during lockdown, you should print out these Department of Home Affairs’ Directions and take this to the bank, along with your document.

If you have further questions about this, you can contact our Advocacy Programme. To do so, please send a WhatsApp to 0782603536. This is operational between 9am and 4pm, Monday to Friday.


Scalabrini runs a project focusing on non-South African / foreign children. We provide assistance in terms of child protection and documentation, and our team includes a social worker and auxiliary social worker. If you are concerned about the welfare of a child during lock-down please send an SMS or a ‘please-call’ to our Advocacy hotline on 0782603536.

Contacting Scalabrini

If you have a question for a specific programme, click here to find out how you can contact us at this time.

Documentation / Home Affairs

Asylum/refugee visas:

If your asylum seeker permit or refugee status has expired, or is due to expire, during lockdown (from 15 March 2020 onwards), it is considered to have been extended up to, and including, 30 April 2022. 

You can read these Directions and Amended Directions in a combined document here. This confirms the extension up to 30 June. Then, on 29 June, the Department of Home Affairs made an announcement extending this until 30 September 2021. You can see the announcement here. On 29 September , the Department of Home Affairs made an announcement extending this until 31 December 2021. You can read these Amended Directions here 

The Department of Home Affairs has also indicated that they will begin an online renewal process for asylum seeker and refugee documentation.

We have developed an infographic to guide you through this online process. Click here to see the infographic.

Refugee Reception Offices:

Refugee Reception Offices have not offered any face-to-face services since they closed at the beginning of lockdown.  As explained above, the Department of Home Affairs has also indicated that they will begin an online renewal process for asylum seeker and refugee documentation. See our infographic about this here.

Immigration visas (work, business, study, etc):

Home Affairs has said that visas which expired from 15 February 2020 will not be declared illegal or prohibited persons, nor will they be arrested or detained for holding an expired visa. They are considered to have had their visa extended up until 30 June 2021 – see amended regulations here. If they wish to apply for an extension, they may reapply for their respective visas or relevant visa exemptions while in the Republic immediately after the lockdown has been lifted. Furthermore, if your visa expired during the lockdown period and you wish to leave South Africa, you should not receive a ‘ban’ upon exiting South Africa.

Certain visas have been extended until 30 September 2021. You can read more about this here.

VFS Global: 

All applications pertaining to immigration visas in South Africa are to be made via VFS Global. VFS is accepting applications on temporary residence visas and waivers. Other services are to be phased in. Appointments must be made; please check the VFS Global South Africa site for more details.

Civic services at the Department of Home Affairs:

DHA confirmed in March 2021 that services such as birth registration, re- issuance of births certificates, death registration, applications for temporary identity certificate, applications for identity cards or documents, collection of identity cards or documents, applications and collection of passports, applications for amendments of personal particulars, applications for rectification of personal particulars, solemnisation and registration of marriages, all back office operational services to support front offices on the above services, visa services in terms of the Immigration Act and online renewal of refugee status and asylum seeker permits /visas.

IDs and travel documents for dependents:

The Department of Home Affairs has made certain services available for dependents (joined to the file) of recognised refugees. This means that if you have refugee status, and you have dependents joined to your refugee file or dependents who were previously joined, that dependent can now apply on email for an ID or travel document if they can show supporting documentation that they are writing matric, enrolling in further studies, or taking up employment. You must have all the supporting documents listed in the DHA document shown here, and can email a request to


Regarding all learner’s licences, driving licence cards, temporary driving licences and professional driving permits that expired between March 26 and December 31 2020: these are deemed to be valid, and their validity periods have been extended until August 31 2021. 

In terms of driving licenses, people on asylum seeker or refugee documentation should also be provided with services at licensing services centres. If you are denied this service, you can contact Scalabrini’s Advocacy Team. To do this, you can send a WhatsApp to 078 260 3536. Or you can call, SMS or send a please-call-me to 083 433 5062. This will be logged and one of the Advocacy team members will get back to you.

Emergency Contacts

If you feel unsafe during lock-down, or want to report a crime, or need a similar urgent services, click here to see a list of numbers to call who can support you – which has been translated into different languages.


For housing or eviction-related advice or assistance you can contact the Legal Support Hotline on 066 076 8845, or the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (WhatsApp, call or ‘please-call-me’ to 073 226 4648 / 071 301 9676 / 083 720 6600 or email or Ndifuna Ukwazi (081 832 9363;

Legal Advice

For general legal advice, call the Legal Support Hotline on 066 076 8845. You can also click here for CoRMSA’s list of useful contacts. 

For advice relating to the lives of migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees (whether documented or undocumented), please contact Scalabrini’s Advocacy Team. To do this, you can send a WhatsApp to 078 260 3536. Or you can call, SMS or send a please-call-me to 083 433 5062. This will be logged and one of the Advocacy team members will get back to you.


The Department of Home Affairs has confirmed  that services at civic offices include the solemnisation and registration of marriages. Following a recent court case, asylum seekers in South Africa who wish to have their marriage solemnised by the Department of Home Affairs (or to register their customary marriage at DHA) should be able to do so. This includes marriages between people where asylum documents have expired since the state of national disaster was declared (15 March 2020).

If you are having difficulties with this, you can contact Scalabrini’s Advocacy Team. Please send an SMS or “please-call” to 0782603536 and, if possible, include your full name. Your message will be logged and one of our Advocacy Team members will get in touch with you.

Preventing the spread of Covid-19

Click here to download and share our posters about covid-19. These posters are translated into 12 different languages, including Lingala, Somali, Swahili, Kikongo, French, Zulu and Xhosa.

Reporting abuse by police and military during lock-down

Under lock-down, the police and military have a role to prevent the spread of covid-19. To this end, they can only use force in very specific circumstances. Lawyers for Human Rights have created an infographic to explain this, and how to report on it – click here to view it. The Military Ombudsman can be called on 076 609 2255.

Rent – paying rent during lockdown

Under lock-down, paying rent might not be easy. If you are having trouble paying your rent, first engage with your landlord. Ndifuna Ukwazi has created an infographic on What happens if you cannot pay rent during lockdown. They have also created a podcast which you can listen to for more details.

SASSA (grants)

SASSA Grants are accessible by South African citizens, those with refugee status, or those with permanent residency in South Africa. In order to apply, a 13-digit ID number is required. For those on refugee status, this 13-digit ID number is generated only when a Refugee ID is applied to (which is different to refugee status, and can only be applied to if refugee status is granted). However, SASSA has made provision, under lockdown, for those refugees who, although they have refugee status, do not have a 13-digit ID as they have not applied for a refugee ID. This is a temporary measure only. SASSA will generate a unique 13-digit ID for these cases. The applicant must phone the SASSA helpline, and get instructions on the various steps they have to take; one of which is deposing to an affidavit. If your refugee status has expired, we advise you to try to claim your SASSA grant. You can also contact: 0800 601011 for SASSA questions. If you are then denied access, please call Refugee Rights Unit on 021 650 5581 for legal assistance.

Please note, regarding the Social Relief of Distress Grant: Following a court case undertaken by Scalabrini and Norton Rose Fullbright, some of South Africa’s asylum-seekers and special-permit holders are now able to apply for the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant (‘SRD grant’).  Applicants for the grant, just like any other persons, will still subject to SASSA’s eligibility criteria – they cannot be receiving an income, any other form of grant, or any economic relief from UIF. People who hold asylum-seeker and special permit status in South Africa, whose documents were valid at the start of the National State of Disaster will be able to apply for the SRD grant. Applicants will need to provide their documents, as issued by the South African government. This SRD grant is a ‘special’ grant rolled out for a limited period only, until March 2022, and only eligible candidates will receive R350 each month during that limited period.

To find out if you are eligible for the SRD Grant read our infographic here 

Read our SRD Grant infographic, for people on asylum documentation or special permits,  here.

Testing and Strategy for Covid-19

For more information on the South African government’s response to Covid-19, keep updated at If you have a Covid-19 health-related query, you can call the National Hotline on 0800 029 999 or the toll-free hotline on 080 928 4102. The Western Cape has its own Western Cape Government’s Covid-19 Response page, too.

Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF)

Because of the covid-19 lockdown, the Department of Labour set up the  ‘COVID-19 Temporary Employee / Employer Scheme’. This helps employers pay a part of their employee’s salary if they closed completely or partially during the lockdown. Normally, your employer should start this process, however if your employer is not using this Scheme you may also be able to apply on your own behalf. For any queries related to UIF TERS Benefits Application, call the UIF Call Centre (0800 030 007).

We have also made an infographic and explainer on the COVID-19 Temporary Employee / Employer Scheme, aimed at those on refugee, asylum or migrant status in South Africa. Please note that *closing dates* have now been applied to UIF TERS. Follow the link above for more information.

Alternatively, if you are a UIF contributor and are unemployed because of termination, dismissal, or insolvency, or if you have reduced income owing to reduced working hours, you may be eligible to apply for Normal UIF Benefits – apply online with the UIF Online Filing System. For more info, follow this UIF’s Easy Guide for Electronic Claims, call UIF for assistance (0800 030 007), or read our Explainer on UIF.

Welfare assistance

We encourage those needing welfare assistance to research all available options, including your local Community Action Network, churches and masjids.

If you have questions about assistance and support, you can contact the Scalabrini Welfare team.

However, please note, our Welfare Team has a very limited fund to help refugees and migrants at this time. Please understand that the Welfare Team are simply not able to assist everyone. We are receiving a very high number of calls and requests. Your application to Welfare Assistance will be assessed, but we cannot assist everyone.

To apply, please call or send a ‘please-call’ SMS to 071 711 1486 (Monday-Friday 9am-4pm). You can also email

For governmental updates, check The national Covid-19 hotline is contactable on: 0800 029 999.

Repatriation and reconnection: facilitating a journey home with the Welfare Team

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 






The Grace of the 12-month Grace period for Late Registration of Birth

The Scalabrini Centre and Partners Appreciate the Shift with Late Registration of Birth to 12 months and call for its continuation or expansion beyond 12 months 

As a result of the pandemic there was a shift in the policy from requiring birth registration within 30 days to birth registration within 12 months, before increasing requirements in the late registration of birth process. This is an important step in ensuring the Constitutional rights realisation for every child in South Africa. 

The Scalabrini Centre has engaged recently with in excess of one thousand clients including numerous South Africans and migrants all of which were/are struggling with the late registration of birth process and the additional administrative burden placed upon parents seeking to register their child’s birth once the 30-day period for registration came to an end.  

In some such cases despite concerted and repeated efforts registration was not feasible within 30 days and thereafter late birth registration was not possible in a period of 3 to 5 years after the child was born. Children struggled and struggle to access school in the absence of a birth certificate. The shift to 12 months for birth registration is a great thing for both South Africans and non- South Africans. Home Affairs should continue with the 12 months period or even expand it further and the Scalabrini Centre would like to appreciate the wisdom in extension the period as this increases the dignity and rights realisation in the pursuit of the best interests of the Child.  

We have found in practice that most parents whose children fell under the late birth registration process, which arises after 30 days, are the parents that did not have documentation at the time of the birth of the child. Both South Africans and Non- South Africans were and are experiencing the same issue. The extension to 12 months allows parents sufficient time to apply for the right document such as: South African ID documents, visas, asylum seeker visas and refugee status documents. One of the advantages of the 12 months birth registration period is it has and will continue to decrease the number of children in the late birth registration process, which takes years for children to get their birth certificates.  

30 Days birth registration causes a lot of late birth registration due to the lack of documentation. Birth registration after 30 days deprives children of the right to identity, the right to nationality, and puts them at risk of statelessness. According to section 28 of the Constitution of South Africa ‘every child has the right to a name and a nationality from birth’. In South Africa, these rights can only be brought to life through the possession of a birth certificate. Additionally, birth registration after 30 days and the failure to issue birth certificates makes it difficult for children to access to education, health care and social services. We encourage parents and care givers to register the birth of their children as early as possible but appreciate the challenges faced in the absence thereof. 

The Bill of Rights sets out a series of fundamental rights including the right to equality, to dignity, to administrative justice and the rights of the child and these can only be truly accessed with valid documentation (such as a birth certificate) that proves the person’s nationality, and therefore their legal and administrative existence in South Africa. Section 28 of the Constitution of South Africa requires that the ‘best interests of the child’ is the priority in all decisions and matters concerning the child.  

A 12-month birth registration period or longer is in the best interest of the child because within a year the child will have a birth certificate compared to waiting for years to have a birth certificate languishing in the late birth registration process. We appreciate the rights protection afforded to South African and to Migrant Children alike and hope that this will continue and be improved upon in years to come.  

Zimbabwe Exemption Permit Holders

The Scalabrini Centre is gathering Zimbabwe Exemption Permit information to assist in our advocacy work seeking documentation solutions.

If you are a ZEP holder, please answer some questions using the button below. Personal information shared is protected in terms of the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act 4 of 2013 and identifiable information Will NOT be shared with out your express and informed consent.

International Education Day

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.

Mapping of mental health and psychosocial services for children (including children on the move) in the Western Cape

This document has been compiled by the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town in order to map various services available to children, including children on the move, in respect of mental health and psychosocial support. The document has adopted a wide interpretation of mental health and psychosocial support services so that it includes more conventional mental health programmes and support, such as the SA depression and anxiety group, as well as other wellbeing personal development-related programmes.  

It is acknowledged that this mapping project is a living document and will need to be updated from time to time as resources and offerings change, as well as if services are added or discontinued. It is recommended that a review is done on at least a yearly basis in this regard. 

This mapping document was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, UNHCR, and UNICEF and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.  

“If I can just fix this …this small, small thing…then it can be better” Documentation, systemic violence and telling stories in South Africa

Written by Rebecca Walker

Between 2017-2019, myself and a colleague worked with a small group of women from across the African continent, now living in Johannesburg on an arts-based project entitled Mwangaza Mama.i Each Friday the group would meet to share breakfast, tell stories and work on quilt pieces that we were creating together. During these meetings the women would often talk about the everyday challenges of life in South Africa; of finding work, paying rent, covering school fees, accessing healthcare and staying safe in spaces of high criminality and violence. These are challenges that are faced by so many across South Africa citizens and non-citizens, in a country shaped by stark inequality and escalating levels of unemployment and poverty. Yet for non-national migrant women, especially those without the correct documentation these challenges are even more stark and further compounded by xenophobia and discrimination. 

Inequalities – and the forms of violence connected to them – are intersectional. They result in an interplay between multiple power structures that produce and reproduce hierarchical distinctions, including race, gender, dis(abilities) and in this context, nationality and citizenship. This means that while all women face discrimination and violence based on gender, some women experience multiple forms of discrimination, although this is often entrenched to the point of invisibility. For the women in the group their status as poor, black, non-national and undocumented (with only one of the women holding refugee status) renders them not only marginalised, but facing multiple forms of violence on a daily basis. As much as they sought to make ends meet and to create stable lives in South Africa these high levels of violence continue to knock them back time and time again.  

Referring to a particularly insidious form of violence the women often talked about the challenges of trying and failing to access documentation at Home Affairs. For them, documentation –and the lack of it – impacted everything from opening a file at the clinic, to securing employment, paying a deposit on a room to rent and, critically protecting them from the constant threat of detention and deportation. They spoke of the long hours and days spent in queues at Home Affairs before returning home unsuccessful. They spoke of the rudeness and corruption of security guards and officials managing the queues and the disregard, the distain and the discrimination directed at them. They spoke of the humiliation they felt. They spoke as smart, skilled, savvy women who had endured and survived much and were then forced into states of helplessness. They spoke as resourceful, determined mothers battling to provide for their families yet unable to hide their desperation and pain inflicted on them from their young children. They spoke as strong women with rich, often traumatic pasts and stories that transcended simple victimhood or resilience; stories that needed to be told, shared and listened to. Stories that were being ignored or at worse, invalidated by the very people upon whom their right to exist in the country depended.  

The significance of documents was captured in one of the stories shared by Michelle, a mother of four from the DRC. One week, Michelle told us how she had been mugged. She had been on her way to pay for a space to work in a hair salon with some money that she had been gifted to help her start earning an income for herself and children. As she was walking a group of men stopped their car, kicked her to the ground and drove off with her bag containing the start-up money, her phone and her asylum papers. In retelling this traumatic experience to the group Michelle had described her shock at the attack but most of all the panic at having lost her asylum papers. She explained,  

“even though I couldn’t walk and everything was hurting, the next day I went back there to the place it happened. I checked for my bag in the bins and all over. I didn’t find it but I found my papers (asylum papers)…that was so lucky. If I lost those papers…” 

Those papers – their physical presence – and their loss – represent so much. Michelle had been badly beaten, then refused help by the clinic where she sought treatment (because she was not South African) and turned away by the police when she went to report the crime. However, for her these experiences were less important than the loss of her papers. The bruises and memories of the violent attack would reduce, but the loss of her papers would have taken away a last piece of hope.  

For Michelle those papers are her way of affirming her rights in the city, a form of communication and a response to the everyday violence she and so many other migrant women endure. Within those crumpled white sheets and the few lines of black ink exists an important story  –  Michelle’s story – of how she came to be here, who she is, how she is and where she wants to go.  

Having the right papers and documentation does not solve everything; it cannot ensure you find a job, can rent a room or that you will be able to access healthcare. It doesn’t topple the intersecting and compounding layers of violence and vulnerability – nor take away previous traumas suffered and current experiences of loss. But it can offer a little sense of security, of legitimacy, of rights – and some confidence to exist in the spaces you occupy. Sometimes surviving the city, making every day work and being able to come up for air can depend on that. As another one of the women in the group once told us, when waving her asylum paper in front of me “If I can just fix this …this small, small thing…then it can be better.” 

It is these experiences and stories and so many others shared by Michelle and the women in Mwangaza Mamas that should force us to move beyond simplistic notions of victimhood and vulnerability, and instead better understand the systemic violence that perpetuates oppression and enforces lives of marginalisation and exclusion. For the Mwangaza Mamas, as women, as migrants, as non-nationals and as mothers – it was important that they not only tell their own stories but that the richness, diversity, contradictions and complications of the narratives they told defied the simple interpretations that are often sought after by those looking to understand and/or assist.  

In this way the role of spaces and methods that might allow for the sharing of layered stories and for engagement with pasts, presents and futures can be recognised. Such spaces can be about telling and sharing stories through art, through words, through silences, through actions and, through absences. Critically, these must be spaces set out, shaped and directed by those who do the telling. They must be their spaces, their agenda, and their processes – enabling what Chinua Achebe (2013) calls “a balance of stories”. For Achebe, a balance of stories is “…where every people will be able to contribute to a definition of themselves, where we are not victims of other people’s accounts” (Achebe, 2013, p. 2). In this way, participatory arts-based methods like those used within the Mwangaza Mama project and currently at the Scalabrini Centre, can allow us to see the intersecting social, political, and economic issues that shape and influence everyday life and work with and respond to the need for visibility AND invisibility and the need to speak out AND to remain silent.  

Like documents, these spaces are not the only answers. They do not fix the systemic brutalities and violence of everyday life endured by migrant women across South Africa. They can’t easily offer safety, security or stable futures. But they can at least offer moments of engagement, friendships and solace as well as an understanding of how and why basic rights, including to documentation matter and why they should be at the centre of responses to migration, to gender and to gender-based violence in South Africa.  

I) The study involved partnership with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and the Sophiatown Community Psychological Services (SCPS), a local non-profit that offers various types of assistance to people living in and around the greater Johannesburg area.