Driven out of their country, Congo's refugees suffer poverty and alienation in South Africa

Knight Ridder NewspapersMay 5, 2006 

CAPE TOWN, South Africa—They were businessmen, engineers and college students. Their dreams were as big as the potential of their country, Congo, where gold and diamonds once seemed to sprout from the earth.

But their dreams died as Congo plunged into Africa's deadliest war, and militias and national armies wrestled over the country's natural riches. In the past decade, the violence has killed 4 million people and sent refugees fleeing in all directions.

Thousands came to industrialized and newly independent South Africa, hoping like immigrants everywhere for stability and opportunity. The reality has been different.

Despite their education and aspirations, many Congolese refugees are working as parking lot attendants, security guards and carwash men in cities such as Cape Town, a shimmering but segregated seaside metropolis. Without immigration papers—which few Congolese are granted—and with a language barrier—most don't speak English well—these are the best jobs they can get.

In this deeply xenophobic country, where two in five people are unemployed, the Congolese are resented for taking even these lowly jobs, and they're often the victims of street crime. Poor and alienated, they cluster with other immigrants in ramshackle apartments in dark, dingy neighborhoods.

"Life isn't easy here. Every day I struggle," said Moses Nyanga, a slight 36-year-old with weary brown eyes. Nyanga washes cars six days a week in a gym parking lot in a leafy Cape Town suburb.

Nyanga and his wife share a one-room apartment with a closet-size bathroom and no kitchen. Even after four years, he isn't comfortable with English—he prefers his native French—and with customers he usually manages just a smile and a few words.

Now, with Congo trying this year to hold its first free elections since 1960, relief agencies want refugees to return. For Congolese in South Africa, it's a difficult choice: Stay and subsist in their new home, where they largely feel unwelcome, or return to Congo, where the future is uncertain.

"But it's a question of security," Nyanga said. "Congo is a beautiful country, but you don't know if one day violence will start again. In South Africa we are not exactly comfortable, but there's no war."

Reliable statistics are elusive, but in 2004 the United Nations estimated that 380,000 Congolese were living in neighboring countries, not including South Africa. South Africa's Ministry of Home Affairs says nearly 42,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are from Congo—more than any other country—but the total number of Congolese in the country is higher.

Unlike most African countries, South Africa doesn't maintain refugee camps. People with job skills, like Nyanga, can go directly to the cities, where they hope for work.

In his hometown of Kalemie, in Congo's rugged, volatile east, Nyanga earned a degree in engineering. He'd used his skill with electrical machinery to set up a small business, a bakery that supplied bread to a few restaurants in town.

But by 2002, Kalemie had become too unstable. Members of the local Banyamulenge ethnic group were fighting rival rebel factions almost daily. From his family's house, Nyanga could see bombs exploding on the other side of the river that ran through town, and at night he and his family fell asleep to the sound of not-so-distant gunshots.

He'd heard that there were jobs in South Africa, so Nyanga took his savings and boarded a bus out of Congo. But once he arrived, employers wouldn't hire him.

In order to work officially, he needed South African identity papers, which he could get only by being recognized as an asylum-seeker. But each time he went to the Home Affairs department to apply, he was told that there was a backlog and that he should wait a few months.

Today, more than 103,000 refugees in South Africa are waiting for asylum applications to be processed. Some rights advocates have called this a scandal. In November, New York-based Human Rights Watch documented systemic problems in the largest Home Affairs office in Johannesburg, South Africa's capital—including corruption, mistreatment of applicants and failure to grant permits that allow refugees to work or attend school while waiting for their applications to be reviewed.

Nyanga submitted his application two years ago, but hasn't heard back. Last year, he married a Congolese seamstress. She's had no luck either.

"Every month, two months, I go back," he said. "You have to give a little bribe just so they will listen to you. Then they tell you to come back in a few more months."

He can't help but feel like an outsider. One recent night, he was attacked, beaten and had his cell phone stolen on the street near his home.

Crime is a scourge in South Africa's cities, and Congolese are an easy target. Many foreigners can't open bank accounts, so they carry cash with them, and if they're attacked, their illegal status discourages them from going to the police.

But many South Africans blame immigrants for the crime problem. As in the United States, Europe and other favored destinations for refugees, the influx of foreigners has contributed to widespread xenophobia, said Loren B. Landau, director of the Forced Migration Studies Program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

The feelings are strongest among poor blacks, who've failed to see much improvement in their lives since apartheid ended in 1994.

"There's a deep existential insecurity among black South Africans," Landau said. "As much as you may have resented apartheid, everyone knew where he was supposed to go.

"Post-apartheid, there's a lot of expectations that the government and others have not fulfilled."

The government hasn't done much to fight xenophobia—many politicians prefer to stoke constituents' fears—but Home Affairs officials said last month that they would launch a campaign to dispel the notion that immigrants are criminals.

But for most immigrants, daily life remains a struggle.

"We fight; we go and look for work every day," said Patrick Nkashama, an outgoing 28-year-old with broad shoulders and an easy laugh.

In Lubumbashi in southeastern Congo, he was two years from a degree in electrical engineering. Since he arrived in South Africa four years ago, he's trolled for odd jobs at a taxi rank, parked cars, painted houses, washed cars and briefly worked as a security guard.

He got that job, he said, by forging identity papers with the help of a friend. He lasted a few months before his then-girlfriend, after a fight, turned him in.

He's embarrassed that he doesn't have any money to send back to his family in Congo. He calls less and less frequently. So far, he hasn't followed the Congolese election campaign. His ties to his home country have frayed almost completely.

"When I talk to my mom, she thinks I'm OK here," Nkashama said. "I'm not OK. But you can't say that. If she knew what it was like, she'd die of a heart attack."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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