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Refugees: The Nowhere People

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The displaced and their search for identity and belonging; the migrant mother and the forgotten daughters who take the brunt of it all.


There are 65.3 million displaced people worldwide. Of those people, 21.3 million are refugees, the people who belong to – Nowhere. No one knows where they come from, no one knows where they’re going. Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, has highlighted that: “We are facing the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time.” He has called it a crisis of solidarity.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Global Trends report shows that since 2003, the number of newly-displaced people per minute has increased from just fewer than 10 to 24 persons in 2015. In 2014, the number was at its highest – 30.

The reasons for displacement differ. Increasingly, the main reason is fleeing the source of political or economic conflict. It then becomes difficult to imagine the uncertain reality the many have run to or are left to live through. In theory, international law defines and protects refugees, encouraging the initiation of asylum procedures once they enter a new environment. In reality, the many who have migrated become nomads, often pursuing what becomes a hollow quest for a better life.

Women and girls form around 50% of refugees or displaced people around the world. In Africa, the number of women uprooted by war and unrest is significantly higher. A study published by Hivos International recorded 80% of refugees in Lebanon were women and children.

Along the inner streets of Johannesburg, are ‘foreigners’, women selling fruit, vegetables and sundry items to feed their hungry children and themselves. Whilst walking up to the Department of Social Development, two young female hawkers ran past me, clutching towels in one hand and tacky sunglasses and cellphone pouches on the other, feeling cops. As is the case with hundreds of immigrants, they have no papers.

Another, a lady, sits rubbing her pregnant belly beside a small stall on Eloff Street. She sells hats, wallets, purses and scarves. She is reluctant to talk and asks not to be named. She came to South Africa following her husband escaping the political turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“I came after he had made his way to what we were calling the land of milk and honey… [but] when I arrived in South Africa, it was made known to me that he had left for Canada. I’d come for nothing.”

Abandoned, she was forced to join the informal trading business.

“Life is hard here. We as foreigners are just not free. People don’t respect us and just steal our stock,” she says with little emotion.

After matriculation, she had gone on to acquire a degree in management in the DRC. But today, she is battered and broke.

Often, along their treacherous journey, the women are abused and mishandled by gangs, truck drivers and cops. This is only the beginning of their travails. The constitutional guarantees cannot protect them from the injustices they face. The UNHCR has highlighted that life for a woman beyond her country of origin, becomes a constant battle and one of constant fear and uncertainty.

One of the many dangers is the xenophobic attacks, as has happened in recent times, with South Africans accusing foreign nationals of taking their jobs and over-populating their areas.

The informal trading sector is the main space in which the hateful disputes unfold. But for foreign nationals who have no other hope, informal trading becomes the only option.

Vanya Gastrow, a PhD candidate currently doing research for the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), says one of the biggest challenges faced by foreign traders who come to South Africa is the crime targeted at them.

Other challenges include lack of access to reliable documentation. Says Gastrow: “Asylum seekers and refugee permits often don’t meet documentation requirements for banks, visa offices, and landlords.” She says such foreigners cannot open bank accounts or access loans.

“These permits also require frequent renewals and so many make the decision to just live without them.”

For women though, it is even worse.

“It’s the sexual violence … and extortion, specific dangers that authorities fail to understand,” according to Penny Foley, a volunteer from Australia currently living in South Africa. She highlights that the objectification of female refugees is one of the many symptoms of what has become the de-humanizing process of forced migration. 

“The global community needs to change the 20th century understanding of a nation-state and move away from the notion of isolated nationalities”, she says.

“Interestingly though, the problem is not just about changing the perception of what nationals think of foreign nationals, relations amongst refugees need to be established. The fight becomes harder if unity lacks amongst them.”

Women and girls form around 50% of refugees or displaced people around the world.

In the pages that follow, FORBES WOMAN AFRICA speaks to three women from Zimbabwe; what displacement has done to them. 

Tafadzwa Shumbu

“I just stood at the border in my pink shirt and panties after I had crossed over. I had nothing and I was scared.”

*Tafadzwa Shumba is 42 and came to South Africa in 2008. She was forced to leave her country, Zimbabwe, because of the political instability that made life for her and her family unbearable.

“I was seen to be too neutral so they threatened my parents and tried to kill me for not engaging in their dirty politics.”

The choice to leave was not an easy one to make but as she recalls, “I literally had to take that leap of faith”.

On July 27, 2008, as the world slumped to a financial crisis, Shumba packed a portable bag. She had R300 ($21) that would pay the ‘Guma-Gumas’, a group of men said to assist escapees across the woods to the border.

“I had a passport but those days we were using visas and they were expensive so my only choice was to cross over illegally.” She was the only woman amongst seven guys.

The group began the three-day walk through the forests, the Limpopo River, eventually reaching the border.

Few survive the trek but Shumba’s determination carried her.

“I don’t forget, as we walked through the forest we saw dead bodies. There was a human head lying on the ground with dreadlocks like mine,” says Shumba, running her fingers through her own.

“The Guma-Gumas picked it up and pointed it at us and said if you don’t give us your money you will end up like this head.”

“They took everything, even my pants and left me with there in my pink shirt, panties and shoes.” There was no time to process the betrayal. The trek had to continue. 

“Look at me,” she says, as she gestures to her body. “I am nothing. I was a nurse, we would wear crisp white uniform and after work, I had a home to go to.”

Last year, she was involved in a road accident in South Africa that left her crippled.

“I could not even get compensation from the Road Accident Fund because I am a foreigner.”

Now, because of her disability, she cannot work so she takes care of children and sells fruits and vegetables when she is desperate for money. The future is uncertain but she takes “each day as it comes”.

There was a human head lying on the ground with dreadlocks like mine.”

Tapiwa Moyo

“Coming to South Africa was supposed to be like going to heaven,” says *Tapiwa Moyo who is 22 years old and from Zimbabwe. When her mother, her only caregiver, left her and her younger sister to find work in Johannesburg, she did not anticipate the hardship.

“At one stage we went without food for almost a week and we had to start selling my mother’s belongings to get some money to buy some maize meal.” 

Moyo’s mother saw South Africa as the place where she could try and build a better life for her children.

“The deal was that she would work for a few months, save the money and get us passports and visas to move to South Africa.”

The months passed and then they turned into years. When their supply of cash and food ran dry, Moyo, as the older sister, still in her early teens, was forced to work menial jobs washing clothes, selling nuts and chips and eventually having to part with all their worldly possessions to survive.

“I would see other children playing with teddy bears and Barbie dolls or walking in the streets with their mothers and I would just cry because that’s all I wanted to do,” she weeps.

She was 15 when she received word that her mother had finally made enough money to bring her and her sister to South Africa. They had waited seven years. 

“When I finally got my passport, it was like my prayers were finally answered.”

The bus ride was one filled with excitement.

“It was a 12-hour ride but I couldn’t even sleep. My life was about to change.”

She recalls the moment she arrived.

“Everything I thought was a lie, South Africa was supposed to be my heaven but it was not.”  

She wipes her tears with anger, not allowing herself to be weak.

“I’ve cried about it all for so long you know and nobody cares … the tears don’t mean anything.

My name meant nothing to the border police and some of the citizens. I was just another ‘kwere-kwere’.”

Since then, that’s all she’s known apart from poverty. Just as she did in Zimbabwe, Moyo finds and sells what she can to ensure she and her daughter do not go to bed hungry each day.

“I left one hell for another. Would I like to be back home with my family? Sure, but that’s no longer an option for me. I’m here now.” 

At some point, I fell to the ground and started to scream ‘I am tired’.”

Emily Shamu

*Emily Shamu came to South Africa when her daughter, Lisa, was a toddler.

“She was too heavy for me to carry along with our luggage and a gentleman offered to carry her when we crossed the Limpopo River,” she says.

She would normally not have trusted a stranger, but for Shamu, the focus was survival. 

Shamu and the others walked 12 hours to Messina, the northernmost town in South Africa’s Limpopo province.

“I did not know we were going to walk for so long. At some point, I fell to the ground and started to scream ‘I am tired’.”

She describes her knees colliding with the gravel road. Her daughter watched as she cried uncontrollably. “My child remembers. We rested for some time and I used this time to remind myself (sic) why I was going through this.”

Now, living in South Africa for eight years as a refugee, her life is defined by a cycle of begging – not for food or spare change – but, each quarter of the school year, to plead with the headmaster to allow her daughter to sit her exams with her peers.

“Every term, my heart sinks… I don’t know if he will say yes. We are just controlled by circumstances.”

In South Africa, students are required to produce a form of identification before they are allowed to partake in written assessments. Because Shamu has no asylum papers, she is unable to apply for an ID document for her daughter.

“If I’m honest, I have not tried to get my papers,” she says. “I tried in 2010 and the back and forth is just so demoralizing. “ Shamu and her daughter live stateless with nothing to ensure stability.

“I want to go home, if the situation can just change…” 

Interestingly though, the problem is not just about changing the perception of what nationals think of foreign nationals, relations amongst refugees need to be established. The fight becomes harder if unity lacks amongst them.”

Refugees Seen As ‘The Other’

The story of a Vietnamese immigrant

Lisa Phung, her mother and older sister hid in a mosquito and disease-infested swamp during the day and in the night were led onto a small boat that took them to a main fishing boat which would eventually transport them to their new lives.

Earlier, Phung’s mother had received instruction from her father to leave Vietnam as their freedom was under threat. He was a pilot who had just been captured by communist soldiers in the Vietnam War. Her mother who was not educated enough for a stable job heeded her husband’s call and managed to secure the money to get her and her girls out of war-torn South Vietnam.

“People smugglers” were paid to get them out.

“The first two times, we got caught and jailed,” says Phung. The third time they got lucky.

“Enroute to the fishing boat, we got robbed by the people smugglers and everything was taken except for a few pieces of food.”

But at least they got onto the big boat.

“We were crammed up like anything and I was one of the youngest at age four.”

Shortly after they started, the boat’s engine died.

“They thought it was a petrol problem but the people smugglers had taken the petrol and replaced the tank with water.”

The group of people floated for 10 days with nothing more than the packet of rice.

“My mother remembers that I was starting to die … everyone was getting ready for death.” 

Shortly before a storm, a British cargo ship sailed past and for a few moments there was hope of survival.

“It didn’t stop to save us and that was heart-breaking because we lost hope.”

It was as though their fate was sealed but then, in a surprise move, the ship turned around and carried the refugees, Phung and her family amongst them, to Singapore.

“After the ordeal, my mum told me she lost hope in a lot of human beings because everyone just looked out for themselves.”

Because Phung’s mother had children, she was the last to be rescued.

“She was the last person off that boat; it must have been horrifying for her.”

The ship docked in Singapore. From there, the refugees were taken to a detention center in Hong Kong where they stayed for three years.

“My mum wanted to go to the USA but they were no longer taking refugees.”

Sometime later, Australia was accepting refugees. Phung was seven years old and finally a life of some stability awaited her.

Years have passed. She now lives in Australia with a family of her own and uses her experience to give hope to others who have walked her path.

“I’ve seen how refugees are seen as ‘the other’ in different parts of the world, coming to take their jobs or their land and they really just want a safe place to live and everyone should have that right.”

Misplaced In Their Own Space

How a community in Western Algeria live like refugees, in their own land.

isolated from the world and within their own state, this has been the plight of the Saharawi people living in refugee camps in Western Algeria for the last 41 years. They face human rights injustice, but unlike other global refugees, it is on their own land.

The Polisario movement, the voice of the Saharawi ethnic group, says the territory reported to be illegally occupied by Morocco belongs to the Saharawi people.

For years following a guerrilla war, they have tried and failed to claim ownership of the land from the Moroccan government with no success. Now, according to the United Nations, they live in mud brick houses and tents in the harsh desert conditions of Tindouf Province, Western Algeria.

They have been locked in an armed struggle for liberation. At the forefront of the movement are the Saharawi women who have increased their traditional role in the fight not only to reclaim their territory but to also salvage their self-determination as a people.

According to Catherine Constantinides, a human rights activist and executive director of Miss Earth South Africa, the power structure is unlike any other on the globe, particularly in Muslim culture. “Women have a strong hold in the camps; they double as caregivers as well as liberation fighters. They also invest heavily in themselves educating one another and learning various skills. They exert the power there and the men respect this because they hold the camps together.”

Constantinides who has dedicated her efforts to bringing to the fore their plight emphasizes the world cannot fathom the dire conditions faced by the Saharawi people “until you see it”.

“The Saharawi people have less than nothing,” she says. On one her many visits to the region, Constantinides witnessed the dehumanizing process of the people getting food dropped from the skies as by aeroplanes and water delivered in huge trucks. The men cannot provide for their families and their children just watch each time as they reach out to the skies to catch what they can.

This is just one illustration of the wide socio-economic gap and the gap between humanity and policy regulations that leave the Saharawi people living in a constant state of statelessness and discomfort.

Moreover, there are no adequate health facilities for them.

“Child mortality is at its highest in Tindouf as women are forced to give birth in their mud houses or tents,” explains Constantinides.

“It’s devastating because children bring that spark of hope within that unfortunate situation.”

United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has since visited the refugee camps as an effort to reinitiate negotiations in the region to end the dispute and to bring liberation to the Saharawi people. During his visit, he said he “would spare no effort towards a just and meaningful solution” for the people in Western Algeria.

These are the kind of efforts activists like Constantinides want to see in the fight against the global neglect of refugees. “We have to find better ways of dealing with the crisis.”

One example which Constantinides makes reference to is the naturalization process that she witnessed earlier this year in Virginia, America, on the 4th of July.

“This was an example of how in time systems can work if applied to crises to give people dignity.”

“We have to bring the concept back of supporting each other instead of building walls,” she sighs.

Until such time, the Saharawi people will continue the taxing fight for their statehood, led by the women who Constantinides says will never give up

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Roadmap For African Startups

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Francois Bonnici, Head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, explains how African impact entrepreneurs will continue to rise.


Does impact investment favor expats over African entrepreneurs? If so, how can it be fixed?

There is a growing recognition all over the world that investment is not a fully objective process, and is biased by the homogeneity of investors, networks and distant locations.

A Village Capital Report cited that 90% of investment in digital financial services and financial inclusion in East Africa in 2015-2016 went to a small group of expatriate-founded businesses, with 80% of disclosed funds emanating from foreign investors.

READ MORE | It’s Time For Africa’s Gazelles To Shine

In a similar trend recognized in the US over the last decade, reports that only 3% of startup capital went to minority and women entrepreneurs has triggered the rise of new funds focused on gender and minority-lensed investing.

There has been an explosion of African startups all over the continent, and investors are missing out by looking for the same business models that work in Silicon Valley being run by people who can speak and act like them.

In South Africa, empowerment funds and alternative debt fund structures are dedicated to investing in African businesses, but local capital in other African countries may not also be labelled or considered impact investing, but they do still invest in job creation and provision of vital services.

There is still, however, a several billion-dollar financing gap of risk capital in particular, which local capital needs to play a significant part in filling. And of course, African impact entrepreneurs will continue to rise and engage investors convincingly of the growing and unique opportunities on the continent.

READ MORE | The World’s Most Generous Billionaires Outside Of The US

What are the most exciting areas for impact investing and social entrepreneurship today?

After several decades of emergence, the most exciting areas are the explosion of new products, vehicles and structures along with the mainstreaming of impact investment into traditional entities like banks, asset managers and pension funds who are using the impact lens and, more importantly, starting to measure the impact.

At the same time, we’re seeing an emergence of partnership models, policies and an ecosystem of support for the work of social entrepreneurs, who’ve been operating with insufficient capital and blockages in regulation for decades.

Francois Bonnici, Head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Picture: Supplied

The 2019 OECD report on Social Impact Investment  mapped the presence of 590 social impact investment policies in 45 countries over the last decade, but also raises the concern of the risk of ‘impact washing’ without clear definitions, data and impact measurement practices. 

In Africa, we are also seeing National Advisory Boards for Impact Investing emerge in South Africa and social economy policies white papers being developed; all good news for social entrepreneurs.

READ MORE | Naomi Campbell: Africa Is One Of The Leading Continents In The World

What role does technology play in enabling impact investing and social entrepreneurship?

The role of technologies from the mobile phone to cloud services, blockchain, and artificial intelligence is vast in their application to enhancing social impact, improving the efficiency, transparency and trust as we leapfrog old infrastructures and create digital systems that people in underserved communities can now access and control.

From Sproxil (addressing pirated medicines and goods), to Zipline (drones delivering life-saving donor blood to remote areas of Rwanda) to Silulo Ulutho Technologies (digitally empowering women and youth), exciting new ways of addressing inclusion, education and health are possible, and applications are being used in many other areas such as land rights, financial literacy etc.

While we have seen a great mobile penetration, much of Africa still suffers from high data costs, and insufficient investment in education and capacity to lead in areas of the fourth industrial revolution, with the risk that these technologies could negatively impact communities and further drive inequality.

READ MORE | Why Now Is The Time To Invest In African E-commerce

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Businesses At The Heart Of A Greener Future

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With every day that passes by it becomes more apparent that the Earth is deteriorating and time is running out to save it. Scientists have estimated that we have less than a decade to save the planet before it is irreversibly damaged, mainly due to climate change.

Businesses claim the largest percentage of global emissions (at approximately 70% since 1988, according to The Guardian) which is an alarming statistic, especially in a time when the planet’s well-being is being compromised.

Many large business corporations are hastily coming on board with operating sustainably by transforming their practices and placing business ethics at the forefront of their priorities.

READ MORE | The Most Sustainable Companies In 2019

Last week, a round table discussion was held at the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel, Sandton hosted by Environmental Resources Management (ERM) – the world’s largest sustainability consulting firm. Their aim was to discuss how imperative it is for African businesses to get on board with sustainability.

“We have been talking about how to be sustainable for a long time but now it is time for us to do sustainability,” says Thapelo Letete, Technical Director of ERM.

An engaging and thought-provoking panel discussion ensued with representatives from ERM and mining companies, Anglo American and Gold Fields. They emphasized the importance of sustainability being recognized by investors, especially in mining and oil companies that rely solely on Earth’s natural resources.

Civil society has a colossal role to play in ensuring the sustainability of businesses. Due to the law of supply and demand in production, consumers are being urged to be mindful of their buying habits and to make sustainable decisions. These are as simple as minimizing the utilization of plastic straws by replacing them with metal or paper straws and reusable shopping bags and by recycling selected items.

READ MORE | Challenging The Gender Divide

“Research suggests that socially and environmentally responsible practices have the potential to garner more positive consumer perceptions of (businesses), as well as increases in profitability,” according to an entry in Sage Journals published in May.

The advancement of science, artificial intelligence and the rapid growth of the technological industry make it an undeniable fact that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway. Many businesses across the globe seem to be well prepared for this change. However, businesses in Africa seem to be vulnerable. 

“It is difficult to say that all businesses in Africa are prepared for it. It is not a country specific thing but it does vary across corporations. There will be businesses that are well prepared and businesses that are not so well prepared,” says Keryn James, CEO of ERM.

A large part of sustainability also relies on empowerment and equality. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of female-owned businesses who contribute a large amount of money towards their respective countries’ GDPs. However, most of these businesses struggle with the issue of scaling.

“Women sometimes underestimate their ability and they don’t necessarily  have the confidence that they should have about the value that their businesses present. Women often take less risks than men,” says James.

“The issue of scaling is one that we see globally. One of the issues are access to funding to support in the investment and growth of their businesses.”

READ MORE | Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

Going forward, the availability of mentorship programmes and skills development opportunities for women, especially black women in business should be encouraged.

According to a study done by the UN Women’s organization, an average of 3 out of 7 women score higher in performance when they are placed in senior managerial positions. Additionally, if more women work, the more countries can exponentially maximise their economic growth.

Women will be empowered when given the correct skills and opportunities to be able to run their own businesses independently which would ultimately lead to the scaling of female-owned businesses in Africa and sustainable development.

The Nedbank Capital Sustainable Business Awards aim to recognize the efforts of businesses that operate sustainably and to encourage other corporations who intend to adopt more sustainable strategies into their practices. Initiatives such as these prove that business value also depends on how sustainable they are.

It is clear that the prioritization of sustainability and accountability in businesses is the only way forward in the midst of this global crisis. With a combination of will and the rigorous work that African businesses have put into sustainability initiatives and strategies, it is easier to be optimistic about our planet’s wellbeing.

-Buhle Ntusi

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Ex-Google Staffer Says After Split With Chief Legal Officer David Drummond: ‘Hell Does Not Begin To Capture My Life’

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Former Google employee Jennifer Blakely has written a scathing blog post with allegations about how her affair with chief legal officer David Drummond unfolded.


A former member of Google’s legal team who says she had a child with the company’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, has written a scathing blog post about the way that their relationship unfolded within the search engine giant, including that he issued “terrifying threats” to take custody of their child after initially refusing to pay child support.

In a Medium post, Jennifer Blakely says that she was inspired to detail her experience after an explosive New York Times story last fall put a spotlight on how the company shielded top executives from harassment claims and sparked massive employee protests.

“Looking back, I see how standards that I was willing to indulge early on became institutionalized behavior as Google’s world prominence grew and its executives grew more powerful,” Blakely writes.

READ MORE | Google, Facebook, Twitter Fail To Live Up To Fake News Pledge

“Women that I worked with at Google who have spoken to me since the New York Times article have told me how offended they were by the blatant womanizing and philandering that became common practice among some (but certainly not all) executives, starting at the very top.” 

While her relationship with the married Drummond was included in the Times story and first reported byThe Information in November 2017, this is the first time Blakely has written about the experience herself.

Drummond is one of several current and former Google executives who has reportedly had relationships with employees or extramarital affairs, including Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin, and Andy Rubin.

READ MORE | Calling Out Sexual Harassment

Blakely alleges that after their relationship ended, Drummond had another relationship with a subordinate, which is against Google’s workplace policy. He is still employed by Google and made more than $47 million last year. 

Blakely says that she started working in Google’s legal department under Drummond in 2001 and that after he told her that he was estranged from his wife, they began a relationship in 2004. She says the two had a child together in 2007 and that Google’s human resources department then told her that one of them had to leave the department.

She moved to sales, an area where she had no experience, and subsequently struggled with her work. Blakely alleges that after she ultimately left the company at Drummond’s urging in 2008, but that while they were living together in Palo Alto, he broke off their relationship via text message.

“‘Hell’ does not begin to capture my life since that day,” she writes. “I’ve spent the last 11 years taking on one of the most powerful, ruthless lawyers in the world. From that fateful night forward, David did things exclusively on his terms.” 

She alleges that Drummond initially refused to see their son or pay child support, and then fought against her in a custody battle. While she says they ultimately reached a settlement and he began paying child support, she writes that “months or years” would go by when he wouldn’t see their son. In 2014, Drummond allegedly showed her an article about Eric Schmidt’s reported history of extramarital affairs during an argument, implying that the executive’s position granted him impunity.

READ MORE | Young women in Soweto, South Africa, say healthy living is hard. Here’s why

“His ‘personal life’ (which apparently didn’t include his son) was off limits and since I was no longer his ‘personal life’ it was time for me to shut up, fall in line and stop bothering him with the nuisances or demands of raising a child,” Blakely writes.

Blakely’s story is the latest in a string of public posts from former Google employees highlighting issues with the company’s culture and policies (or their lack of enforcement).

One of the women who helped organize last fall’s protests, Claire Stapelton, recently wrote about her experience with retaliation, another employee detailed the disappointing way the company’s human resources department dealt with her harassment reports, and former senior engineer Liz Fong-Jones posted about “grave concerns” with the company’s decision making in general.

The outspokenness of Google employees exemplifies — and has helped spur — a broader activism in the tech sector that has seen workers speaking out against their employer’s internal policies and business decisions.

Blakely’s post also taps into the larger #MeToo movement which has drawn attention to sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace across industries.

“Until truth is willing to speak to power and is heard, there’s not going to be the sea change necessary to bring equality to the workplace,” she writes.

Neither Google nor Drummond immediately responded to a request for comment. 

This story is developing.

-Jillian D’Onfro; Forbes

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