18 December 2009

SAHA focuses on the 2009 UN International Migrants Day

Towards an ‘improved understanding' of migrancy, refugeeism and xenophobia

This week South African President Jacob Zuma reminded South Africans that "an improved understanding of the plight of refugees" was necessary to strengthen human rights in South Africa. Zuma's address took place at Pretoria's Freedom Park during South Africa's Day of Reconciliation festivities on the 16th of December 2009.

In keeping with this message, SAHA focuses on the 18th of December, the United Nations' International Migrants Day, which was established in 2000 to commemorate the 1990 adoption of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant workers and Members of Their Families.

With alleged corruption in the Department of Home Affairs, and inhumane conditions and treatment in transit camps such as the (now closed) notorious Lindela camp in the West Rand in Gauteng, the post-apartheid government has made relatively little progress in its official policy relating to foreign nationals, especially displaced persons. The poor treatment of migrants has been exacerbated by the growing stream of refugees from neighbouring states, particularly Zimbabwe - where state-sanctioned terror, land grabs and mass unemployment have left many with no options but to seek resources beyond their borders.


No one is illegal

The seething umbrage of xenophobic sentiment amongst South Africans reached a new low between May and June 2008, when a wave of violence aimed at foreigners swept the country. At least fifty people were killed, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Across South Africa's varied landscape, the virulence of pogrom-style attacks on foreign nationals made international headlines.

Many South Africans decry the influx of foreign migrants, perceiving them to threaten access to employment, housing and other services. This commonly held view negates the fact that South African urban culture was essentially founded on the migrant labour system. The transcience and insecurity of the system was a key ingredient in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century Johannesburg, and ultimately precipitated the rapid processes of South African urbanisation and industrialisation.

The myth of South African exceptionalism

One of the major misconceptions of South African migrancy patterns is that they have changed, or somehow ceased, since the dissembling of influx control measures in the 1980s, and especially since 1994. Another misconception is that migrancy is a one-sided process in Southern Africa; in contemporary South African democracy, it has become all to easy to forget that many South Africans have been reduced to the status of refugees in the recent past.

South Africa now hosts the highest number of migrants in the region. More attention needs to be given to these people as victims of a vicious circle of dispossession. Refugees need to be understood not simply as migrants, but as people who are likely traumatised, disoriented and distressed, having lost the security and support of their familiar home environments.

For more on issues of migrancy, influx control, xenophobia and refugeeism, please refer to the following SAHA Collections:

AL2878 - Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) Collection
AL2461 - SAHA Exiles Collection
AL3265 - Zenzo Nkobi Photograph Collection
AL2184 - Neil Coleman Collection

As part of SAHA's mandate to represent the hidden histories of South Africa's dispossessed and marginalised, it is important to strengthen our collection of archival material related to the problem of xenophobia. We are especially keen to expand our collection of documents, posters and ephemera related to the 2008 xenophobic outbreaks. If you have any original material related to migration, refugeeism and xenophobia that you would like to donate to SAHA, please contact Archives at SAHA.