'The end of this story may be very sad'
Bundled up against the cold in layers of sweaters, a jacket and a woolly cap, Jacques Kikonga Kamanda greets us chuckling, “now I’m really dressed like a refugee”. The mischievous twinkle in his eye reminds me of Desmond Tutu, but when I draw the comparison he waves me away. “Oh no, not at all—he is a very great man!”
For many refugees and migrants, Kamanda too is a very great man: an elder leader who is a calm but determined advocate for their rights. He is a teacher by training and the scholarly air remains, as he weighs his words and tries to be fair, even to those who harm members of his community.
As secretary of the Coordinating Body for Refugee Communities, Kamanda carries the hopes and fears of foreign nationals living in South Africa. And ahead of the feared resurgence of xenophobic violence, those fears weigh heavily.
“There were about 50 police officers from Johannesburg Central and they were beating up the people in the workshop quite badly. I asked a constable what was going on and instead of replying he said: ‘Wait for after World Cup. You will all go home’. Imagine an officer who is supposed to uphold the law saying such a thing? And to a person of my age!”
The fact that the police officer made the threat so casually and openly makes Kamanda believe something serious is afoot: “I’m not saying the whole service is like that, but when I hear that from someone who is supposed to protect me I feel disarmed.”
For Kamanda, foreign nationals face hurdles on two levels: state inefficiency and animosity from the citizenry. “Before 2008 our problems were mostly to do with incompetence of government departments like Home Affairs which meant we couldn’t get our documents renewed on time. But of course we knew we were not the only ones suffering. Even South African citizens resorted to hanging themselves as a sign of despair that they could not get their ID and thus couldn’t get employment.”
But, he says, the events of May and June 2008 changed the landscape forever. He discounts the notion that the attacks were the result of frustration about poor service delivery. “If this was about service delivery, why kill people who are not service providers? Surely if it was a service delivery issue they would go to the municipality and ambush the mayor and councillors and give them an ultimatum? We are used as a scapegoat by incapacitated civil servants, who say ‘we can’t plan because migrants are flooding into the country and the resources we planned to use are being taken by them’.
“This is totally wrong!” he exclaims. “We don’t get housing or food or clothing from the government. We are grateful that the government gives us our temporary permits and our refugee papers. We are grateful that we get the minimum of primary health care - but that is all we get. The other service we expect is safety and security of our lives and our property. That we don’t get.”
The reality is that foreigners are not given RDP houses, but that many owners of these houses have sold or rented them out and moved to the suburbs. “Corrupt officials also sell these houses, and then it appears foreigners are getting preferential treatment.”
The attacks on foreign shop owners in the townships are driven, he believes, by business leaders who can’t deal with competition.
“Migrants are business-wise and entrepreneurial, they know how to attract customers,” he explains.
“Local business leaders cannot handle that so they hire people to instigate attacks, looting and burning. The leaders and instigators break open the doors, and the grassroots people just help themselves. I don’t blame them. I blame the leaders.”
If the government is determined to prevent a repeat of 2008, they need to be seen to be taking strong measures against those who perpetrated the last attacks, or who threaten fresh ones. “I am unaware of any tribunal that sentenced any single culprit who was involved in the 2008 attacks,” Kamanda adds.
“The government needs to set an example of anyone who would tarnish the image of this rainbow nation, where everybody is a brother and everybody is a sister. South Africa is the reference point for the continent - if nothing is done the end of this story will be very sad.”
This article is part of a series. See more videos and coverage on our special report, Xenophobia: the reality.