Refugees and Immigrants in South Africa

On January 11th, the SASA class of 2012 got the privilege of having a woman named Zwaki Qeqe speak to us, as well as a young woman named Adele. Ms. Qeqe manages the Bonne Esperance refugee center for women and children. She came to speak to us about immigration and refugees in South Africa and the struggles that they face. South Africa has had a bad history with immigrants, which has left people with very negative feelings towards immigrants and refugees. Xenophobia is rampant in the country, despite their supposed open door policy and the idea of a “Rainbow Nation”. Some of this may come from the idea that the immigrants are taking jobs from the vast number of jobless South Africans. This is very similar to the reasoning that many American’s have for their negative views towards immigrants.


After apartheid, there was a mass movement to deport the illegal immigrants in South Africa. This has been criticized as a brutal and corrupt system. In 2002, South Africa created, and in 2005 enforced a new, friendlier immigration act. This new act focused on bringing in skilled immigrants and attempting to get rid of the xenophobia in the country, but it didn’t have any specific plan to do this. While the act got rid of the refugee camps, it still contained fairly brutal measures for deporting undocumented immigrants, including enlisting the members of the community to spy and report anybody whom they suspected to be an illegal immigrant. This only fueled the fire of the xenophobia. One of the large contributors to the immigration to South Africa is Zimbabwe.  Zimbabwe citizens have fled the economic hardships and political oppression of their country for South Africa and have been the victims of much of the xenophobia. In May 2008, xenophobic riots spread across the country because of the country’s dissatisfaction with how things were going.


The goal of many refugee centers like the one that Zwaki Qeqe works at is to integrate refugees into society. They do this through things like community development. They attempt to increase the participation of the refugees in their communities. Some places attempt to do this with sports. Others do this through other community programs. These centers also try to teach skill development so that refugees can have the skills to get jobs. They also help them apply for jobs once they have the skills.


Another goal of these centers is to educate the South African citizens about refugees and immigrants. They try to teach them how to help refugees and how to teach them. They teach them that the immigrants aren’t a negative thing to have in their country and how they can work together to improve their communities. They also set up the Amnesty Center for Peace. This center focuses on the peaceful coexistence of refugees in the country. This helps with their goal of social reintegration and cohesion. They attempt to make the refugees “ambassadors of peace”. These ambassadors are refugees that help other refugees. They focus specifically on crime and work with the police to stop xenophobic crime as well as crime by refugees themselves. They also use a street community approach and have these ambassadors monitor the streets for xenophobia as well as to make sure that the refugees are involved in the community. They also promote peace.

One of the hardest things when working with refugees, especially women and children is that they are scared and embarrassed to tell their stories. This means that they are unable to do as well because they can’t get better and get past what has happened to them. One thing that Ms. Qeqe’s center does is give these refugees a safe place to tell their stories and mend. Adele was one of these children who was afraid to tell her story and who was helped by this center. She was forced to grow up fast and went through more than any of us can imagine.


When Adele was 6, she was brought by her family across the border in a box in the trunk of her car. She was abused by her family, and when a teacher found out about it and confronted her father, it only made it worse. This convinced Adele that nobody could help her and she attempted to take things into her own hands. She ran away from home but eventually a teacher found out and forced her to return. She was again beaten and finally ran away with her sister and stayed with strangers. They were found by the police but Adele was unable to tell them the truth. She was sent to a social worker who, even after Adele told her what happened wasn’t able to help. Adele never went home. She lived the rest of her childhood on the streets. She was sexually abused by people and was even impregnated by rape. Eventually she found the shelter and they helped her out and helped her to tell her story. Now she lives with her brother.


This story is one of terrible circumstances and a child who was made to grow up too fast, but it is one that many refugees could tell you. The centers help these children who have nobody else. At the end of Adele’s story, many of the members of the class were visibly moved. It was a powerful moment. The hope is that this center and the others like it can eventually rid the country of xenophobia and prevent more children from having stories like Adele’s. It is a huge undertaking, but by educating the community and getting involved, progress is being made. On one of our outings as a class. I remember hearing one of the township members talking about xenophobia that they had seen in their township. It struck me that, while it is still happening, at least there are some people in the community who notice it and are trying to make a difference, and that’s a good place to start.


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8 Responses to Refugees and Immigrants in South Africa

  1. lyasso says:

    Illegal immigration is a divisive issue in America so hearing about immigration issues in South Africa was an interesting perspective for our class. While United States policy typically focuses on deportation, stricter borders and influx control it was interesting to hear that South Africa has been actively trying to combat the problem of Xenophobia in their country and train immigrants in skilled positions. Hearing Adele’s message put a human perspective to the immigration issue and the problems associated with undocumented people in South Africa.

  2. Steph Pinch says:

    Jenny, great job on covering one of the hardest personal narratives from someone we met. I think the issues and inequalities facing immigrants are sometimes overshadowed by more pressing issues such as HIV/AIDS or other political topics. Adele speaking was incredibly moving and was an opportunity for our class to learn how the “Rainbow of South Africa” is evolving.

    • Nzwaki Qeqe says:

      It is always a pleasure to have young people engage in these serious character building issues – who are to take over the reigns of creating a better world through policy development, analysis, implementation? The young women and men like the SASA group that I met in Cape Town Fountain Lodge – they are at an advantage of experience as they get exposed to matters of human rights and people governance. How a country looks after its most vulnerable, children, women, widows, people living with disabilities and immigrants says a lot about that country’s character and vision. It was a pleasure to share stuff with you. Thanks to PC Layne indeed. Nzwaki

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