Ensuring all Black Lives Matter in South Africa

For the past two years, Edward Ndlovu, a Mozambican civil war refugee who is now a naturalized citizen of South Africa, has been filled with rage. Having lived in the Bushbuckridge area, in the country’s eastern province of Mpumalanga, since arriving as a boy with his parents in 1989, Ndlovu –together with tens of thousands other former Mozambican war refugees– woke up one morning in 2018 to discover that the government had blocked their identity documents (IDs). 

Since then, much of South Africa’s migrant community has been eking out a precarious existence, reeling under the full effects of the socio-economic suffocation that is undocumented existence. 

“It has destroyed my planning for my future, I can’t open bank accounts to invest for my future or to plan for my way forward,” Ndlovu told SABC news. “It has destroyed my chance as a South African, it’s like I don’t belong in South Africa. I don’t know anyone in Mozambique…  all my family is here, I have nowhere to go if South Africa blocks my ID,” he said. “I don’t understand.” 

This image was taken outside parliament in Cape Town, South Africa on June 3rd, 2020. Due to COVID regulations demonstrators couldn’t legally gather for a protest. Instead they held a vigil, with written messages for the 11 or more Black people who have died at the hands of police and the South African National Defence Force during lockdown. Demonstrators also stood silent for the illegal home evictions that took place and shacks destroyed by police during the lockdown. Photo: Devaarne Muller.

As the world reacted with anger to the killing of George Floyd, South Africans quickly joined the Black Lives Matter protests, something expected given the institutionalized racism that Black people in South Africa endured during the more than three decades of apartheid, which ended with the coming of majority rule in 1994.

Thousands of people attended Black Lives Matter demonstrations and vigils in Cape Town, Pretoria, and Johannesburg to protest violence by security forces enforcing the lockdown –and before the start of the pandemic– which targeted mainly impoverished Black communities. Others, including many prominent South Africans, took to various social media platforms to express their solidarity with the protests.

Africa’s biggest economy until last year, South Africa has long provided sanctuary to Africans who have good reason to believe that their lives are in grave danger. Among them are political activists from countries like Zimbabwe and Rwanda, as well as LGBTI people from countries including Uganda

But all is not rosy for the more than five million immigrants in the so-called Rainbow Nation. African migrants in South Africa are regularly threatened with recurrent bouts of xenophobic violence founded on the belief that foreigners, both documented and undocumented, are to blame for the country’s fast-growing social and economic woes. This violence has also been named Afrophobia, as it is almost exclusively targeted at Black migrants from other African countries. 

So while the South African government and ordinary citizens expressed their solidarity with the global movement for the protection and advancement of the rights of Black people, Ndlovu and millions of other Black Africans within the country’s borders were left wondering whether their own lives mattered. 

A South African Black rights group Black First Land First (BLF) has joined hands with Mahlo ya Rixaka, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working with Ndlovu’s former Mozambican war refugee community to ensure that the full rights of Black African migrants in South Africa are restored. 

“Black First Land First, in solidarity with the plight of those affected, has undertaken to monitor the process,” said BLF in a statement on the ongoing fight to protect the immigrant community. “This is essentially a case of the theft of the identities of Blacks by the anti-Black system.” 

In June of last year Mahlo ya Rixaka won a High Court order compelling the Department of Home Affairs to restore IDs to some 5,000 affected immigrants in the  Bushbuckridge area, but nearly one year down the line, the department has not complied.

“There are people who are running businesses and cannot access their money in banks because they are frozen due to the ID blockade,” said Hamilton Thobakgale, the spokesperson for Mahlo ya Rixaka.

At the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa, the government introduced a social relief grant of R350 ($20) per month for citizens, but asylum-seekers, and other immigrants were systematically excluded and there reports of starvation among immigrants.

Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, a local NGO, went to court to challenge the relief regulations, for which eligibility requirements shut most immigrants out by using a criterion applied in ‘normal’ situations, even though a disaster had been declared. There was huge relief in immigrant communities when the court ruled in their favor.

 “Scalabrini Centre challenged the exclusion of certain asylum seekers and special permit holders from eligibility for the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant on this basis,” Sally Gandar, the centre’s Head of Advocacy & Legal Advisor, wrote to Toward Freedom in an email interview.  

“Because South Africa has a prolonged asylum process, with many individuals remaining on asylum seeker documentation in excess of five years… Even if they were de facto refugees, these individuals would not have had access to the grant because of the asylum processing backlogs within the Department of Home Affairs.”

Two of the 11 people who have been killed by the police and the army since South Africa’s lockdown started in March were immigrants. 

One of those killed, Collins Khosa , a South African national, has since become emblematic of the security forces’ brutality in South Africa.

Khosa died on 10 April 2020 after members of the South African army who were helping the police to implement the COVID-19 lockdown allegedly assaulted him at his home after finding beer mugs at the house. South Africans are not happy with the internal investigation that exonerated the soldiers from Khosa’s death. 

“Both of these acts of police brutality are the latest in an ugly history of brutality and racist oppression,” said Scalabrini Centre in a statement posted on its website. “We stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, in a call for justice and for reformation.”

Sharon Ekambaram, the head of Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) told Toward Freedom that according to according to a report by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) to Parliament, 11 deaths and 376 reports of assault – including police corruption – were reported during the period of the COVID-19 lockdown. 

“It is a serious indictment on our country, a democracy with a Constitution that is held up as a beacon of hope as it enshrines values of respect for human dignity, and human rights for all, this in a world that is dominated by the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro who both represent a serious threat to democracy,” Ekambaram said.

“Institutionalized xenophobia appears to be acted out primarily and almost exclusively in townships and informal settlements in our country and hence victims are all predominantly Black African men and women, be they South African or coming from another country on our continent,” said Ekambaram. “We are outraged by the violence of the security forces… against Black African South Africans or against foreign nationals. Black African Lives Matter.”

Earlier this year, the Legal Resources Centre won a Supreme Court ruling that entitles millions of children born in the country to immigrants to South African citizenship.

Gabriel Shumba, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Exiles’ Forum in Johannesburg told Toward Freedom that while as an organization they have not joined the Black Lives Matter movement, many of their members have. 

“We recognize the importance of raising issues of racial inequality and prejudice globally,” said Shumba, who is also the Director of the Immigration Advisory for Southern Africa. “We condemn racial prejudice while at the same time drawing attention to xenophobic and Afrophobic discrimination and violence in South Africa. We hope that the passion that African governments exhibit in condemning racism in America will be shown in equal measure or even more strongly against the ill-treatment of foreign nationals in South Africa and Black Africans in China, and by Chinese nationals in Africa.” 

The rights of Black African migrants in South Africa, especially those who are undocumented, remain under threat. “South Africa should make special efforts to protect the most vulnerable in the country and ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not overlooked or forgotten,” said Dewa Mavhinga, the southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch, who is also based in Johannesburg. 

But the South African government’s new policy of favoring locals ahead of foreigners in the COVID era means the welfare and future of Ndlovu and the millions of others whose rights in South Africa are contested, depend on self-organization and the efforts of human rights organizations that are ready to challenge the government.

This article was updated on July 11 to more accurately reflect the reason for the Scalabrini Center’s lawsuit.

Author bio:

Cyril Zenda is a freelance African journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. His work has appeared in Fair Planet, TRT World Magazine, Ozy.com, The New Internationalist, and Science and Development.