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.’