Refugees in this country who admire the ANC’s fight in exile against apartheid, beware. If you try the same thing here, a government run by the ANC may throw you out.
In the last days of December, home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi gazetted regulations governing the rights of refugees. The rules implement the Refugees Amendment Act, which became law on January 1. They deny refugees here the right to do what the ANC and other anti-apartheid movements did when they fled repression in SA.
The regulations say refugees may lose their status — and so their right to live here — if they participate “in any political campaign or activity related to his or her country of origin or nationality while in the republic without the permission of the minister”. So, refugees will need to ask the minister’s permission to campaign against governments they have fled.
A key element of the fight against apartheid was, of course, international boycotts and other pressures on the apartheid system. These were organised by SA refugees. So were campaigns of resistance to apartheid. But if refugees here try the same thing without the minister’s approval, the government may deport them.
This is not the only regulation gazetted last month that aims to make life difficult for refugees. Perhaps the most bizarre is that they can lose their status if they apply “for any assistance or official document, such as a travel document or citizenship-related document, at any diplomatic mission representing his or her country of origin or nationality”. So, if a refugee asks their country of origin for a birth certificate, they can be thrown out of this country. A government committee can also restrict their right to work and study.
The rules seem designed to pander to anti-foreigner sentiment. Their effect is to deny refugees benefits ANC members fleeing apartheid enjoyed. Anti-apartheid exiles would probably not have asked the SA embassy for any documents but they would have been rightly enraged if they were sent back to serve prison terms if they did ask. And were ANC members who studied at British or East European universities abusing the hospitality of their hosts?
All these rules harass refugees, but the ban on political activity is the hardest to understand, let alone justify. What reason can there be for denying refugees the right to campaign against the government they fled, besides a desire to protect autocrats and bullies? When ANC members were in exile they insisted, with justification, that by fighting apartheid they were exercising a human right. Does this right not extend to refugees here because they are not considered human, or because rights enjoyed by members of the governing party when they were in exile are not meant for others?
Hostility to immigrants in this country is usually based on urban legend. But it is worth pointing out that the targets of these rules are not the usual objects of abuse: people who come here to earn a better living. They are aimed specifically at victims of political persecution, who are meant to be entitled to refuge here. They are therefore not simply a wrong-headed attempt to “protect” South Africans from competition for opportunities. They are a signal that the ANC in government wants to deny refugees here rights it and its members once enjoyed, either because it wants to show that it is tough on immigrants or because it wants to cosy up to the governments they fled. Or both.
Whatever the reason, denying people the right to campaign peacefully against governments they fled seems a clear violation of the constitution. If the democratically elected government is to be stopped from treating people much as apartheid did, these regulations will need to face an urgent challenge in the courts.
Friedman is a research professor with the humanities faculty of the University of Johannesburg.