Africa Day: Breaking Down Borders

migration Africa Day xenophobia
Wednesday, 25 May, 2011 - 09:31

The 2008 xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals in South Africa and problems experienced by women migrants on the continent, are some of the issues to remember as we commemorate Africa Day this year

As we celebrate Africa Day on 25 May, among the multicultural events and inter-African festivities, it's a good time to also remember that we should to take our pan-African sentiments to heart all year round. There have once again been reports of increasing tensions directed at South Africa's large migrant communities. It was three years ago that xenophobic attacks shook South Africa - this time we need to catch the problem before it gets worse.

Africa Day offers an opportunity for all of us to celebrate the heritage and ubuntu of the African continent; it's a time to commemorate as one people regardless of where we come from. One problem is that while topics like xenophobia and migrants' issues attract media attention when there is a problem, the everyday lives and stories of communities are rarely heard.

In the spirit of Africa Day, Community Media for Development (CMFD) Productions and Fahamu Networks are launching Breaking Borders, a series of radio documentaries documenting the personal stories of migrants from different parts of Africa.

In one piece, Jenny Ndamwemezi* discusses how, in 1994, she fled Burundi with her younger sister after her parents were killed in the civil war. Arriving in South Africa they had nowhere to go so the young girls lived on the streets until a family friend found them and took them in.

Two years later, age 14, she was brutally gang-raped while walking home from school. Like many migrants who suffer sexual abuse, Ndamwemezi did not report the incident to police, or go to a hospital. She still struggles to cope with the psychological effects of the rape. "Sometimes I used to blame myself, even now, I do blame myself sometimes," she says, "but when I sit, I say no it was not my fault. It was nobody's fault."

According to Mercy Machisa, Gender-Based Violence Programme Manager at Gender Links, this is common. "Migrant women, especially if they are refugees and don't have the proper documentation, are afraid to approach the police or any service providers that deal with survivors," she said. "They fear they will be identified as illegal and face the risk of being deported or stigmatised."

The wave of xenophobic violence that hit South Africa in May 2008 left 63 dead and many others homeless, hospitalised or robbed of their belongings.

Tendekai Mujuru*, a Zimbabwean musician, lost his musical instruments during the attacks, including a treasured mbira. "We had to run away leaving our instruments in the house," he remembers, "they took our mbiras, sound systems, and the drums we had."

Internal South African migrants also face challenges. Ana Ndlomo* moved from Mpumalanga to Johannesburg after she was divorced from her husband of 20 years. She arrived in Johannesburg with nowhere to stay and later learned she was living with HIV.

Ndlomo is now settled and works to help migrant sex workers with some of the same challenges. Sex workers have a hard time accessing health, police and training services. They may not speak the local language, or know where to find clinics or police stations. They are also afraid to approach these officials, especially if they don't have proper documentation.

Ndlomo is like many migrants who, despite personal hardships, are contributing positively to their new communities. Ndamwemezi is another example. She now volunteers to help other migrant and refugee women adjust to life in South Africa. Mujuru still plays music, but he also plants trees in his community as a way of nurturing people through nurturing the earth.

Keeping these positive and extraordinary stories of migration alive throughout the year will contribute to an ongoing understanding of the rich diversity of our African identities. We also must remember that in the end we are all Africans, no matter where we come from.

*Real names have not been used.

- Cindy Dzanya works for Community Media for Development Productions. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.

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