The indictment was offered a neutral jury to deliberate. First was United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Public Information Assistant Pumla Rulashe, whose organisation is responsible for engaging governments in regard to the treatment of refugees and their rights. "There's been quite a number of reported incidents of xenophobia, even though we don't necessarily document them. They range from people attacked because some people allege that they take away jobs. There are violent actions at people with a different skin colour or nationality," Rulashe says. She indicates that though isolated, attacks on foreigners do occur.
According to a statement that preceded the launching of a multi-organisation campaign called Roll Back Xenophobia, "since 1997 more than 30 innocent refugees and asylum seekers have been brutally killed, simply because they were foreigners. Unfortunately it took the brutal killing of three Africans on a train near Pretoria to awaken a large part of the public to the dangerous phenomenon called xenophobia"
In the interest of a balanced debate, and to indicate to society that it would have been empty celebrating Africa Refugee Day iday while the same refugees are still discriminated against, we caught up with three refugees at Pretoria, where the report said some were murdered. Thomas Zolamisu (37) comes from Angola and has been in the country since 23 July 2001. He says that all the talk of South Africans being hateful have no ground. "The problem I encountered since I came here was with police who sometimes arrested me wanting to see my documents. But when they see that I have a permit they let me go" he testifies.
Another refugee who thinks South Africans should not be blamed for feeling nervous around foreigners because apartheid denied then the opportunity to interact with other Africans is Tutu wa Mwanga from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A street hawker who dresses like a model, he says the only problem they encounter is with the way the Refugee Affairs office treats them. "Everytime we go to Braamfontein they give us thirty days and no permission to work or study. So every month I have to go to Braamfontein and it's expensive". He produces a stamp-infested permit to substantiate his allegation.
The United Nations Convention on Human Rights stipulates that, "Refugees should have the same economic rights as citizens of the host country. This means the right to earn and spend money". Zolamisu is a hawker too and doesn't understand the furore over xenophobia. While talking to him a young woman comes to complain that the buckle of a handbag she bought a day before from his stall has broken down. Zolamisu protests, accusing her of being careless. The young woman, without notice, removes a buckle from another bag on display and replaces the one she broke. Zolamisu accepts the broken buckle and attaches it to another bag on display. He did not argue with her because he can only master less than 30% of English. I sit there apologetic, he is angry, I wonder if the woman would have done the same thing if Zolamisu was a South African.
"We can not foster a culture of human rights in South Africa when our treatment of those who happen to be different to us is unforgiving, uncaring and sometimes even brutal with deadly consequences" Rollback Xenophobia states.
"The media has highlighted xenophobia issues. There's a shift in attitudes. People are more aware of why they (refugees) are in the country and are not holding on to ignorance anymore. They are open to information," Rulashe says.
But, is South Africa a xenophobic society? Another refugee named Dante says that it is not wholly the truth. Rulashe adds that there are instances where foreigners have been attacked because they are different. She's however open to speculation that the fact that South Africa is an open society that discusses anything might have contributed to the suspicion that there is a problem. South Africans can truly be guilty of openly talking about xenophobia while most African countries don't. Everybody knows what happens when Bafana Bafana plays an away game against most African opposition.
However Rulashe advises, "people must not think that it is acceptable to call foreigners names as long as they don't physically harm them. They must shy away from any name with a derogatory connotation. They rather not use it instead of reasoning that the motive was not to hurt"
Some South Africans have been heard saying that the problem with most refugees is that though they ran away from oppression, when an opportunity opens for them to go back home and vote, they get there and vote for the same dictator then run back to South Africa and demand to be treated as refugees.
In conclusion the campaign statement states' "South Africans are urged to practice African cultural values like ubuntu, hospitality and solidarity in their relations with others in their midst". Of only one South African could practice that, Africa Refugee Day will be worth every celebration that goes into it.