/ 13 December 2023

Motsoaledi’s approach to refugee protection is anti-African

World Refugee Day In South Africa
Retrogressive: Black Africans fleeing violence as well as political and social upheaval already struggle to find refuge in South Africa and it is likely this situation will worsen, a move that flies in the face of the African Union and pan-Africanists. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee/Getty Images

Through its White Paper, the department of home affairs is proposing that South Africa should withdraw from major international refugee protection regimes — the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1969 Organisation of African Union Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. 

The department is suggesting that after withdrawal from these international conventions, South Africa should re-accede with reservations and exceptions, the result of which will disproportionately negatively affect black African refugees in the country, as a large percentage of refugee communities in South Africa are black Africans.

Many African nations and the African Union (AU) are proposing that an economically and politically united African continent is a viable alternative for Africa’s socio-economic advancement and developmental progress. 

One of the most powerful ways Africa can realise her developmental aspirations is, as the AU and pan-African activists are suggesting, through implementing free movement of people or visa-free schemes across the continent. 

Some African countries such as Benin, Gambia, Seychelles, Kenya and Rwanda, have already initiated their visa-free entry positioning, setting an example for other African countries to follow suit. And it is expected that many other African countries will abolish their respective visa requirements for Africans and pave a way for a future united, amalgamated and consolidated Africa. 

The AU’s Agenda 2063 — which envisions the implementation of free movement of goods and people to enhance economic development, social relations, cultural exchanges, skills transfers, trade and investment and ultimately a unified and consolidate political integration of the continent — aims for the relaxation and irrelevance of colonially created political-physical boundaries. 

The AU, inspired and driven by the spirit and principle of pan-Africanism and African Renaissance, is envisioning a united, integrated and consolidated African community of nations and ethnicities across the continent. 

An exemplary expression milestone in the practical realisation of a borderless united Africa is the introduction of an African passport, which was initiated in 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda. The main intention of the passport is to realise the 2063 African Union vision of unhindered, visa-free movements of Africans across the traditional borders of members of the AU. 

It seems, contained within the progressive assumptions of free movement of Africans within the African continent, is unhampered African refugee movements who flee various political and social adversities and upheavals in their own respective countries and their right to seek refuge and residence in relatively safer countries and regions of the continent. 

In other words, all member states of the AU will have the social obligation and moral responsibility to receive and settle refugee communities of African origin without restrictions on their movements and settlements across Africa’s political borders. 

The large percentage of refugee communities across the continent — including South Africa — are black Africans and any restrictive measures pertaining to refugees in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa affects black Africans disproportionately. The department’s White Paper relating to the revision of South Africa’s refugee protection policy, therefore, pointedly targets black African refugees in the country. 

At a time when South Africa is supposed to spearhead a borderless Africa in line with AU’s vision, the recent White Paper by Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi to revise South Africa’s progressive refugee protection policy is discouraging and anti-Africanist in its spirit and intentions. 

Many Africans — including heads of state, scholars, academics, activists, analysts and lay people — are calling for the erasure and usurpation of colonially invented political borders and the integration of the African continent through free movements of people. 

But South Africa appears to be riding against this tide of pan-Africanism and visa-free initiatives that are gaining momentum across much of the continent — particularly among Africa’s young generation. 

If the White Paper is approved and South Africa’s refugee protection policy is revised, it will be a major blow to the African Union’s progressive vision of a people-centered integrated Africa and to the vision of the African passport because it is black African refugees who will be greatly affected. 

Dr Amanuel Isak Tewolde is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg.