Written by: Christina Vestey
I woke up feeling numb this morning. I feel so empty, confused as if my heart has been ripped out of me, torn into pieces, and thrown out in the bin. I am saddened by the death of an innocent man who was stoned and burnt alive because of being a foreigner. Yes, he was an illegal foreigner. Was it by choice or by the system? “Foreigners are taking our jobs, foreigners are stealing our wives, foreigners must go, Foreigners this, foreigners that……” and the comments go on and on and on. But here’s a tough one; is anyone responsible for feeding them, paying their rent, or making any small contribution for survival? Of course not. So what is the problem?
Growing up from one township to another in South Africa, mob justice is used as a tool to promote community safety. It is done to people considered to be “a danger” to society. For example, “nyaope boys” is slang for the youths who use drugs and steal from the community, as well as armed robbers and so on. The community takes the law into its own hands to protect its members and maintain safety, peace, and harmony. In South Africa, it is said that ” “. But here’s another tough one; between a foreigner providing cheap labour for survival and a citizen capable of murdering somebody to prove his citizenship status, who is a true criminal?
My experience in South Africa carries a lot of weight, good and bad memories, happy and sad moments. I’ve been hurt countless times, but along the way, I met people who value peace and unity. If all citizens were not accommodative, if all citizens did not understand that some of us are being deprived by the system, my family wouldn’t be living in a township. Something worse would’ve happened. This is why I keep saying that all those involved in movements to destroy the oppressed black foreigners in their country do not know or understand what we are going through.
My name is Rebecca; I was born in Burundi and grew up in South Africa. We fled my home country due to political unrest, and we discovered ourselves in South Africa in 2009. I was too young to remember everything that was happening, especially daily traumatic events, but too old to know and understand that I am a foreigner.
Upon arrival at the refugee reception centre in Pretoria, my mom was interviewed. She was booked for an appeal hearing, and given 6 months. Looking back at my young self, I thought that we were accepted as refugees after walking out of the refugee reception centre. I believed that my family and I were in a safer place now. Little did I know that being an asylum seeker does not guarantee you acceptance as a refugee in a country or provide any benefits. My family have been asylum seekers until today.
The so-called “Asylum permit”, which I normally refer to as an” A4 paper” because I don’t receive any benefit with it, only protects me from being illegal, and that’s it. It is renewable every six months, sometimes three months, or even one week. It all depends on the moods and emotions of the officer on duty upon expiration. If they are happy, they give you 6 months. If they woke up on the wrong side, they tell you, “come back tomorrow, or next week, sometimes even next month.” Like I just said, it all depends on the person whose saving you on that particular date and time. Remember when one is being returned home without a renewed paper, it simply means that you are automatically illegal until further notice.
Furthermore, corruption is a leading factor as well; those who pay a bribe get served first. I never came to terms with the fact that someone at the Refugee Reception Desk can expect a bribe from someone who’s seeking asylum/refugee in their country. The person has broken already. Some sleep under bridges, not even knowing where their next meal would come from. Where the hell would they get the quick cash to give you?
The asylum permit is an A4 paper size with a lot of useless terms and conditions written all over it. And if you read further between the lines, you’ll come across a statement that reads: “WORK AND STUDY IN RSA.” The statement is just there to fool the fools and the world, but it is a different story in reality. When I finished high school, the reality hit me harder than ever before. No company or institution wanted to sponsor me, to further my studies. The only option I had was to become a domestic worker. However, still, no shop, restaurant, or a pleasure resort wanted to hire me either.
I remember walking to the nearest Spar grocery store. When I arrived I requested to speak to the manager. They told me that he was not available. I told the security guard that I was not leaving until I saw him, and he said, “Ok, if you are looking for a job we are not hiring.” I told him, look, I am not here to cause trouble. Just tell them that a little girl is waiting, and she won’t leave until she speaks to you. That is all I am asking. While at it, a young man passed by and asked if everything was ok. I immediately replied that I needed to see someone superior, and it was urgent. Little did I know the young man was the manager himself. “Please follow me,” he said. I told him my story, and he listened.
When I finished talking, he said: “Rebecca, I hear you and I sympathize with you, but even if my store was allowed to hire foreigners, what assurance do I have that this permit will be renewed after 2 months? I know that I cannot help you at the moment, but I still believe that there is a door waiting for you out there. However, let’s say my fears become true, how is the company going to keep you when you are illegal?” I was on the fourth month of the previous renewal at the time. It was a sad reality; his response is still in my heart, fresh as yesterday. However, I will forever appreciate him for his honesty. It has been over 5 years, and I experienced everything that he said in that office directly. I still face some of the things in my everyday life.
In terms of Xenophobic attacks, citizens must understand that “there is no better nor safer place like home.” Thinking that foreigners are taking their jobs, wives, and so on is all illusion. Not everyone living in South Africa came here for green pastures. Some are here to seek refuge, as they left their native country because of war or any other natural disaster. Some were born, and others were raised in a foreign land, like my example. I was only 14 years when my family arrived in this country, but since my parents were undervalued, unrecognized, and dehumanized by not being recognized as refugees, that is why we (children) are being considered illegal foreigners every day. Even if 100 movements rise to manhunt illegal foreigners, we will either die or survive because we have nowhere to go.
When the state of disaster was declared in 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I concluded that being a foreigner means limitations and exclusions everywhere. No law, rule, or a principle that works or will work in your favour. I don’t know about refugees and immigrants in other countries, but this is my true story, which is based on my personal experience. I was denied access to a health care facility at my local clinic twice because my A4 paper was expired. The refugee reception centre has been temporarily closed because they had to adhere to the Covid -19 regulations, and the nurse did not want to hear anything from me. Most individuals lost their source of income, and everyone was at their lowest point. Still, some NGOs and government institutions dared to request identity books before assisting those badly affected by the lockdown ( e.g. social relief grants, food hampers, surgical masks, sanitizers et..). I am not sure about others, but none received any form of relief from the government during those trying times in my family. They made sure that, their rescue serves the right people, not the other way around.
Nelson Mandela said: “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” So I am standing today, with 27 years of life, stateless, hopeless, and confused, not knowing whether I am going or coming, living with the anxiety and uncertainty of being arrested and/or being deported. Even if I were to be arrested today, I sometimes wonder where would I be deported to? The only home I’ve ever known is South Africa. The political unrest did not only cost me my birthright, loved ones, and country of birth but my identity, dignity, freedom of expression, and all rights for survival.