Temporary shadow cast over Africa’s ‘rise’

Celebrations on Africa Day, May 25, to coincide with the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, are marked this year by efforts to contain the fallout from recent events that dealt a blow to the idea of African unity. 

Progress made with African integration has been marred by xenophobic violence against other Africans in South Africa and other anti-African incidents in the past year. This includes the refusal in mid-2014 by some African governments, like that of Zambia, to allow people fleeing from Ebola-affected regions into their country.  

In addition, the terrible incidents of immigrants drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean — many of them from Africa — have cast a temporary shadow over the “Africa Rising” narrative, with many people questioning the motives of those fleeing their home countries. 

In the run-up to Africa Day many are asking: is life in some African countries so bad that people are willing to risk their lives just to get to Europe, or to a hostile South Africa? Where is the solidarity when it comes to hosting desperate African refugees fleeing hardships at home?

 A new report by Amnesty International on conditions in Libya sheds some light on this issue. It documents in gruesome detail the stories of migrants trying to reach Europe and the maltreatment of Africans by Libyans, who exploit their vulnerable situation. 

Many of them say they have fled their countries due to insecurity or lack of economic prospects, but their situation in Libya — where war rages between armed factions and two governments that both claim control of the country — has become unbearable. 

“Widespread abuses are increasingly pushing thousands of foreign nationals, including members of established communities, to risk their lives in treacherous sea crossings in a desperate attempt to reach safety in Europe,” says the Amnesty report.

Earlier this year, 28 Ethiopians were killed by extremists from the Islamic State in Libya and before that 21 Egyptians experienced the same fate, targeted because they were Christians. 

Amnesty International has recommended that countries neighbouring Libya, such as Tunisia and Egypt, keep their borders open in order to allow those facing abuse in Libya to flee the country, without having to risk their lives at sea.

It also urged Europe to resume its search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean following the drowning of up to 1?700 migrants this year, and to crack down on human traffickers. 

The number of those dying while trying to cross over to Europe increased dramatically this year after the Italian operation to search for and rescue migrants was scrapped in favour of policing focused on stopping traffickers. 

During the rule of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, African workers in Libya reported mistreatment and discrimination at the hands of their Libyan employers, but the report shows that this has escalated since the 2011 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation intervention that ousted Gaddafi. 

The migrants in Libya are not all from Africa; in fact the largest group is made up of people fleeing the civil war in Syria. As in many other cases of illegal migration and human trafficking, the identities, motivations and final destinations of the migrants are frequently unknown. 

The uncertainty about figures and over the real reasons why migrants travel to other countries also characterises the debate about xenophobia in South Africa. 

Last month seven people died and thousands of migrants were displaced due to anti-foreigner violence in the Durban and Johannesburg areas. 

Several hundred Malawian migrants have been repatriated to their home country. Last week 400 Mozambicans were deported, following a police operation against illegal immigrants.

In the wake of the xenophobic violence, some international media reports stated that there are over five million migrants living in South Africa — a figure that may add fuel to the fire, amid accusations that foreigners are taking jobs away from locals. However, nongovernmental organisation Africa Check says the official census is that only 2.2 million foreigners live in South Africa. The number could be higher if undocumented migrants are included, but it is unlikely to be double the official figure.

Subsequent to the attacks, South Africans have been vilified on social media for their xenophobic behaviour and a call was made in countries such as Kenya to boycott South African goods. 

“South Africa has betrayed ubuntu. We, the rest of Africa, are saying boycott Mzansi! Abash violence and broad day daylight murder of innocent Africans in South Africa,” says the Boycott South Africa Facebook page.  

In all of this, African solidarity is sorely lacking.

A diplomatic spat over the issue of xenophobia has also seen relations between South Africa and Nigeria reach an all-time low, with the temporary recalling of the Nigerian High Commissioner in South Africa.

The reaction by President Jacob Zuma — that African countries should clean up their act, so that their citizens wouldn’t want to seek greener pastures — was also not well received.

Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, for example, denied that the large numbers of Zimbabweans living in South Africa are economic migrants. 

“Our own African people on the African continent must be treated with respect,” said Mugabe, current chairperson of the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community, after the attacks.

Institutions like the AU have been at pains to try and breathe new life into the concept of African unity, which has made great strides, especially in terms of the economic integration of the continent. 

The AU has strongly condemned the xenophobia in South Africa. AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement: “Whatever the challenges we may be facing, no circumstances justify attacks on people, whether foreigners or locals. It is unacceptable.”

The 15-member Peace and Security Council of the AU also convened a meeting in Addis Ababa to discuss the issue. It welcomed the efforts by South Africa to stop xenophobic attacks.

The upcoming summit of the AU, from June 7 to 15 in Johannesburg, will be an occasion for African countries, especially South Africa, to announce new measures to improve African unity and solidarity.

To limit the damage dealt to South Africa’s reputation, several initiatives have been launched by organisations like the Nepad Business Forum, whose members are concerned about protests and retaliation against South African businesses elsewhere on the continent. 

South African Home Affairs Minister Mulusi Gigaba also announced that a prize would be awarded for “outstanding migrants” who are making a contribution to South Africa. The winner of the prize, to highlight the positive benefit of immigrants to South Africa, will be announced on Africa Day. 

The inter-ministerial committee on migration, set up following the recent incidents of xenophobia, also recommended in a press release on May 17 that “South Africans [should] be encouraged to celebrate Africa month [May 2015]”.

While the focus has been placed on incidents where African migrants and asylum seekers have been chased away while seeking a better life, little is said about the hundreds of thousands of refugees generously hosted across Africa. 

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Kenya and Ethiopia host the largest number of refugees on the continent, most of them from Somalia and South Sudan.

An important distinction, however, has to be made between refugees and asylum seekers. South Africa has the largest number of asylum seekers in Africa; these are people waiting to be granted refugee status. But their numbers pale in significance compared to the large refugee communities hosted in many African countries. 

Refugees are only in some cases integrated into local communities, while those fleeing the violence in South Sudan or Somalia to Kenya and Ethiopia, for example, are hosted in refugee camps run by the UNHCR.

Smaller numbers of refugees are also hosted in places like Cameroon (from the Central African Republic), Niger (Malians fleeing Islamist groups in the north of the country) and Liberia (Ivorians who fled the 2011 war in their country). Lately Tanzania has also been called upon to host refugees from the political turmoil in nearby Burundi. In many instances this places a huge burden on poor local communities living in border regions.

Apart from hosting refugees and economic migrants, African solidarity is also evident in the way many countries are willing to send soldiers to distant war zones on the continent, often stepping in where the United Nations refuses to go. 

In Somalia, for example, the AU keeps the death toll of soldiers from the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) under wraps but it is said to be in the hundreds.

Amisom is principally made up of soldiers from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sierra Leone.

In January Dlamini-Zuma told African heads of state at the 24th AU summit that these soldiers are the “unsung heroes of Africa” and a memorial should be erected to pay tribute to them.

Nigerian neighbours Chad, Cameroon and Niger have also stepped in to help with the fight against Boko Haram, with heavy losses suffered by the armies of Chad and Niger.  

The AU has mandated a joint military task force to intervene in northern Nigeria to fight the terror group.

Who is hosting whom?

– African countries hosting the largest number of refugees from neighbouring countries:
Kenya: 537 021; Ethiopia: 587 708; Chad: 454 883; Uganda: 358 453; South Africa: 65 000.

– Refugees originate from: Somalia: 700 000 (in Kenya, Ethiopia); South Sudan: 537 000 (in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda); Sudan (Darfur): 368 290 (in Chad); DRC: 226 880 (in Uganda).

– Countries hosting the largest number of asylum seekers: South Africa: 243 948. Asylum-seekers in South Africa originate from: Somalia, DRC, Zimbabwe and others.

Refugees: People fleeing violent conflicts, often kept in refugee camps and cared for by organisations like the UNHCR. They are usually not granted work permits in the host country.

Asylum seekers: Those who have applied for refugee status. They are allowed to work and receive government services.

Source: United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran is an independent journalist and Africa expert. She lived in Senegal for many years and has reported from over 20 African countries. She is a regular commentator on African issues in the local and international media. From 2002 to 2008 she was the Africa Editor at Media24 newspapers in South Africa and still contributes to newspapers such as the Mail&Guardian in Johannesburg. Liesl also works as a consultant for the Institute for Security Studies, notably as editor of the African Union Peace and Security Council Report.

Related stories

A peek into SA’s foreign policy black box

South Africa’s foreign policy performance, over its first quarter-century democratic governance, is put under the spotlight

AU weathers Kagame whirlwind

Rwanda’s president put everything into reforming the organisation, with mixed results

Zuma ‘daughter’ courts Morocco

Ntombi Msiza claims to represent SA interests in the North African state, despite frosty relations.

Africa seeks better deals with China

But the continent does not speak with one voice when meeting and dealing with the Asian giant.

Fate of SA hostage captured in Mali remains unclear

Stephen McGowan's whereabouts are unknown despite the release of the Dutch national who was kidnapped alongside him in Timbuktu in 2011.

Activists call for release of South Sudan report

Civil society activists are calling on the African Union to make public the findings of an inquiry into human rights abuses in South Sudan.

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Vitamin therapy is for drips

It may be marketed by influencers, but intravenous vitamin therapy is not necessary and probably not worth the hype, experts say

Facebook, Instagram indiscriminately flag #EndSars posts as fake news

Fact-checking is appropriate but the platforms’ scattershot approach has resulted in genuine information and messages about Nigerians’ protest against police brutality being silenced

Murder of anti-mining activist emboldens KZN community

Mam’Ntshangase was described as a fierce critic of mining and ambassador for land rights.

Unite with Nigeria’s ‘Speak Up’ generation protesting against police brutality

Photos of citizens draped in the bloodied flag have spread around the world in the month the country should be celebrating 60 years of independence

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday