On this past Tuesday, 30 October, Africa Unite was invited to Khayelitsha, Site C, to facilitate a community workshop on the topic of human rights. The focus of the workshop was the question: ‘What is a migrant?’. The workshop started with a simple question, ‘Who is originally from Cape Town?’. Upon being asked this question, the participants of the workshop looked around, and after a quiet moment, two women raised their hands. In a group of 35 participants, only two people were originally from Cape Town … so that means we can call the others immigrants, right? The participants were mainly members of the Khayelitsha Peace Building Team, a community based NGO in that area that protects the rights of vulnerable people in the community.
In order to get a better understanding of the migrants living in our communities, we first discussed in the workshop what reasons one might have to migrate. The participants explained that it could be employment, opportunities, civil war or other conflicts – mostly negative reasons.
In order to bring this discussion to a practical level and to force participants to consider the plight of refugees and immigrants, we then facilitated a small exercise to put the participants in the shoes of asylum seekers that look for asylum at the border of South Africa:
The participants look at each other all confused. ‘What language is this?’, ‘Maybe it is French?’. They get 10 minutes to fill in the form that was handed to them. The confusion grows, nobody is sure what to do with the form, why it is necessary to fill it in, and why it is in a language they don’t understand. When they think they are done they have to hand the form in, and wait for the result: DENIED. The confusion keeps growing, because how can you get denied when you don’t even understand the questions?
With this small, but powerful exercise, participants were forced to consider the realities of asylum seekers and the confusion, anger, powerlessness and sadness that the process can cause – all emotions that the participants reported feeling. The participants admitted that this exercise gave them a better understanding of how refugees feel when they come to the border of South Africa. However, what really is the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee? The discussion that followed showed that people are not aware of the differences. Participants stated that these two classifications are the same, because they are both looking for protection. In the end, they concluded that the difference is that an asylum seeker is someone coming to a country asking for asylum/protection/formal documents. As a refugee, you have received documents and you’re allowed by the government to stay and live under the constitution of that country.
The topic of stereotypes surrounding immigrant communities were also discussed and dissected in the workshop. Participants were open and honest about stereotypes and generalisations that they had heard surrounding immigrants, and we openly discussed these stereotypes as a group:
‘They smell’. Everybody laughs. ‘They take women’. Everybody laughs again. ‘No size in condoms’. Now everybody is starting to name stereotypical ideas about the immigrants in their community … ‘They bring diseases’, ‘human trafficking’, and ‘they forge documents’.
Unfortunately, stereotypes define most of our ideas about the immigrants in our communities. The lively discussion that followed on stereotypes made the participants realise that these stereotypes are actually what they are: stereotypes and generalisations. They don’t apply to every immigrant, just like the stereotypical ideas immigrants have of the local South Africans are not applicable to all South Africans. However, those stereotypical ideas do affect our way of approaching immigrants in our neighbourhoods, and are the cause of the violence and xenophobia. People die as a result those stereotypes, which are sadly rooted in many false generalisations and hatred.
At the end of the workshop, the participants explained that this workshop helped to make them aware of the stereotypes that define the way they think of immigrants, and their lack of knowledge about the reasons why people migrate. They argued that more education – like this workshop – is needed in their communities, because all of the ideas about immigrants are in peoples’ minds, and not necessarily reality. This workshop made them realise that stereotypes are a societally dominant way of thinking, while there is no evidence that they are even remotely true.
In all, this Human Rights training was an incredible success and really allowed us at Africa Unite, as well as participants from Khayelitsha, to expand our perspectives and views considering refugees and immigrants in our communities, as well as our rhetoric and attitudes about them. Together, through increased understanding and celebrations of human dignity; we can eradicate senseless xenophobia and build a stronger South Africa.