Human rights murals remind of refugees rights and suffering

Wednesday, 25 February, 2009 - 09:50

Since the violent attacks against foreign nationals in South Africa last year, xenophobia has become a topic that is little discussed in the public sphere. Yet human rights activists are well aware that the underlying issues that caused the violence have not been solved but continue to bubble beneath the surface.

Six months after the violent attacks against foreign nationals in South Africa have ebbed down, xenophobia has become a topic that is little discussed in the public sphere. Yet, human rights activists are well aware that the underlying issues that caused the violence have not been solved but continue to bubble beneath the surface.

“The attacks are over but the reasons for why the attacks happened are still there,” says Sonke project manager Nyanda Khanyile. “If we don’t deal with the underlying issues, they will pop up again sooner or later. Xenophobia is a long-term issue.”

South Africans continue to feel frustrated about poor service delivery, high poverty levels, crime and unemployment - problems for which many blame refugees and migrants and use them as scapegoats.

To ensure that the wrongs of the attacks against foreign nationals stay fresh in the public’s mind, NGO Sonke Gender Justice has painted five anti-xenophobia murals in Johannesburg and Cape Town in the second half of 2008.

“Although we see no reports on violence against foreign nationals in the media anymore, it is an ongoing issue, even if it happens on a smaller scale,” explains Sonke co-director Dean Peacock. “With the help of public art, we want to draw attention to xenophobia as an ongoing problem, to the importance of reintegration of refugees and migrants who had to flee their homes and to the fact that we don’t do nearly enough in South Africa to protect marginalised groups.”

Most recently, on December 10, the organisation launched, a mural located in Joubert Park, near a taxi rank next to the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), which tells the story of Rwandan refugee John T.

The mural in Joubert Park is the fifth xenophobia mural that Sonke has painted – with financial support from Ford, Oxfam GB and UNHCR - since South Africa was inundated by a wave of violent attacks against foreign nationals in May and June 2008. The murals form part of the organisation’s Refugee Health and Rights (RHR) project that focuses on working with refugees and migrants on the topics of HIV/AIDS, gender, human rights and xenophobia.

Within the last year, Sonke has also painted murals on the themes of fatherhood (in Meadowlands, Soweto), on rape (in Pimville, Soweto) and on gender-based violence (in Newtown, Johannesburg central business district).

It is important to Sonke to not only paint a mural but to get buy-in from the community that lives around it. “We try to integrate the surrounding communities as much in our mural projects as possible,” explains RHR project coordinator Jean-Pierre Kalala.

Sonke invites community members to workshops on refugee rights, gender and HIV and asks for their input into the theme and content of each mural. Apart from addressing a specific human rights issue, each mural also sends the positive message that One Man Can do something to bring change, a slogan based on Sonke’s work around male involvement in working towards gender equality.

Sonke’s One Man Can campaign is the organisation’s flagship project and supports men and boys to take action to end domestic and sexual violence and to promote equitable relationships that both men and women can enjoy. Its main aim is to promote the idea that each one of us can play a role in creating a more equitable and just world with regard to HIV/AIDS, gender equality and human rights – an aim that tightly interlinks with the organisations work with refugees and migrants.

Workshop participants are invited to help paint the mural together with Sonke staff and APS artists. “Getting actively involved in painting the mural gives people a strong sense of ownership,” explains Kalala. “Communities need to feel that they own the mural. We are just brokers of the message.”

To paint a mural with a message that has the potential to reach a large number of people, it needs to be informed by concerns that are central to the community members’ daily lives. “It is important that people can relate to the images, identify with the issues, think about them and then get on a road to change,” says One Man Can coordinator Thami Nkosi. “Because the murals are based on images instead of writing, they leave room for personal interpretation and encourage the thinking process.”

The latest mural focuses on the plight of a refugee, who fled violence in his home country, only to be confronted again with violence in the country he sought refuge. In 2000, art and architecture student John T fled Rwanda’s capital Kigali after he lost his parents, two brothers and three sisters to the genocide. He set out on a six-months-long road trip to South Africa, via Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. During his journey, he suffered hunger, thirst and discrimination.

On the border between Malawi and Mozambique, thieves stole his passport, which meant that John had to cross the border illegally. Soon thereafter, he was arrested as an illegal immigrant, refused refugee status, and spent a month in a prison in Maputo. When he finally reached South Africa, John lived for several weeks in a refugee camp in Pretoria North and finally established a new home in a backyard room in Mamelodi, a township 20 kilometres east of Pretoria.

For the next eight years, the 33-year-old worked hard to rebuild his life. He found himself a job and slowly bought new clothes, furniture and eventually a used car. But earlier this year, in May, John’s life was threatened once again. A group of South Africans entered his home one evening and threaten to kill him and burnt all of his belongings. They also set fire to the car he had saved towards for years.

“Everything I had worked so hard for was gone in seconds,” remembers John T. “It was a horrible experience. It was like reliving the genocide. I asked myself how I deserve this.”

John T sought refuge at a friend’s house in Mpumalanga for three months and now lives in a small flat in central Pretoria. “I am trying to pick up the pieces,” he says, “but I am not happy in South Africa anymore. I cannot trust the people.” He is exploring opportunities to immigrate to Uganda, where his only surviving sibling, his sister Betty, lives.

Today, John T’s story is depicted for everyone to see as a mural in central Johannesburg. Sonke staff, in collaboration with young artists working for Artist Proof Studio (APS) and the JAG, painted a 25-metre-long wall adjacent to a busy taxi rank, opposite the gallery, to ensure that xenophobia and reintegration are themes that stay present in the minds of passers-by.

“We hope that when people look at this mural something changes in their perception of foreigners,” says APS facilitator Molefe Thwala. “And we hope refugees will see that there are South Africans who care.”

For John T, seeing his personal story painted on a wall has been a symbol of hope and optimism. “To me, the mural is a sign that the voice of refugees has been heard. It shows me that there is support around us and that there are people who want to make sure that violence against foreigners will never happen again,” he says. “I feel like our pain has at last been heard.”

Murals are an effective way of communicating social issues through public art. “Moving art outside the four walls of the gallery context into the streets is a most efficient means of getting a message out,” explains APS executive director, Kim Berman. “Murals are a perfect opportunity to reach the public without having to invest major financial means and to beautify a public space at the same time.”

“Murals are an interface between past and present. They add value to our social environment,” agrees JAG curator for education, Tshidiso Makhetha.

In the first week of its existence, the mural has already drawn much attention from those who frequent the taxi rank. While painting the wall, numerous passers-by have commented on the paintings, engaged in discussion and asked about John T’s story, says APS artist Themba Khumalo: “Some pointed out the importance for us to learn from what happened, others said the mural will make sure the attacks will stay in our minds for many years.”

Many onlookers drew similarities between the xenophobic attacks and the human rights violations that took place during Apartheid. “People felt the images were similar to what happened during Apartheid and they reminded them of injustices of the past,” explains Thabo Mofokeng, another ASP artist.

Not all comments were positive, however. “Some people made derogatory and defensive comments, saying it was the foreigners’ own fault that the attacks happened because they take away jobs from South Africans,” says Khumalo. “But even negative comments have a positive side to them, because they give us an opportunity to engage people in conversation about xenophobia and provide them with new insights.”

All murals are strategically located in places where many foreign nationals as well as South Africans live and work and where there is lots of foot traffic. “The murals are a form of public education that takes place on exactly the spots where violence and human rights violations are happening,” notes Anne Adams, a community police officer who happened to walk past one of the murals.

Three of the xenophobia murals stand in townships near Cape Town, such as Khayelitsha, while the fourth mural is located in Yeoville, a central suburb of Johannesburg, opposite a market where many foreign nationals sell their wares. Its main theme is celebrating diversity within Africa as well as African unity and it contains messages highlighting that “Africa belongs to everyone” and a call to fight those who commit crimes against humanity.

“Foreign nationals felt there was a need to educate South Africans about why they had to come to South Africa and what it means to be a refugee or a migrant in this country,” explains Sonke facilitator Baku Firmin, who himself is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). “At the same time, we hope the mural will makes refugees more aware of their rights.”

Firmin says the Yeoville mural raised many questions about what led to the xenophobic attacks and caused much debate among South Africans and foreign nationals who spend time in the area: “The mural was a great idea to send a message out to the community. It has helped to remind people that we are all coming from one continent and it has created a renewed sense of unity.”

Kristin Palitza is a is a freelance journalist, editor, media consultant and trainer. This article was written for Sonke Gender Justice and is republished here with their permission.

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