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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A leading Catholic bishop in South Africa says the country needs to start looking at migrants “as people who are in need of help.”
Bishop Joseph Mary Kizito of Aliwal is the liaison bishop for migrants and refugees at the Southern Africa Bishop’s Conference.
South Africa has seen a series of xenophobic attacks against migrants from other African countries, with migrants being blamed for crime and stealing jobs from South Africans. There are nearly four million foreign-born people in South Africa, which has a population of 60 million.
Kizito says South Africa has lost its sense of “Ubuntu,” a Zulu phrase that means “humanity towards others.”
Speaking to Crux following a workshop on migration that took place in the Diocese of Bethlehem and Cross-Borders, the bishop called for compassion towards refugees, because these are people fleeing “poverty, crime, political instability, wars, famine, climate changes, and more” in their home countries.
Excerpts of his interview follow.
Crux: At the beginning of the second day of the workshop on Migration in the Diocese of Bethlehem and Cross-Borders, you said you plan to work with the Home Affairs departments, so “that the spirit of compassion, kindness, charity may come into them.” Is that an indication that the government has not been compassionate towards migrants coming into South Africa?
Kizito: We have to be objective in matters of the migrants and refugees. One of my calls is to be human and look with compassion for those people who are looking for refuge in South Africa. There is a loss of that human sense of “Ubuntu.” We need to call upon the government departments to look at the way they treat and care for those knocking at their doors. There are a lot of relationships between the people of Africa and South Africa. When we look at Lesotho and Zimbabwe, there is a lot of brotherhood and sisterhood among them.
We are called to turn to compassion in the Bible. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you: for this is the law and the prophets.” In the book of Exodus and in the culture we are always called upon to embrace the strangers and everyone who comes to our villages and townships.
In our African culture there are no foreigners. We Africans think of the community first before the individual person.
UmuNtu ungumuNtu ngabaNtu: A person is a person through other persons. “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore, I am.”
We need to look at the people coming to South Africa as people who are in need of help. They are being pushed out of their countries due to poverty, crime, political instability, wars, famine, climate changes, and more. Jesus is calling us to be present to those in need. Whether or not they belong to our social group or not. Jesus calls us to be compassionate like the good Samaritan.
Can you give an idea of the flow of migrants to South Africa: Where are they predominantly coming from and why?
In South Africa most of the migrants who are Africans come from Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, DRC, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Ghana, Eritrea, Rwanda, Uganda and Cameroon. Then those who come from outside of Africa come from the United Kingdom, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Portugal.
The main driving causes are poverty in their countries. There are a lot of countries that are facing security and political conflicts and crime. These wars around Africa do cause people to be on the move. Most of the African countries are unable to provide their citizens with jobs. The education offered does not empower the youth to use their own local resources to provide shelter, clean water, and basic medical services. There is a lack of democracy and human rights. People live in fear – the fear of expressing their opinions.
Since independence, our political leaders have done little to alleviate poverty in their countries. There is corruption and state capture in a number of African countries. A lot of money has been used by the government people without accountability.
Africa is still a very rural continent. We need to develop those rural areas into urban areas, to be able to offer them technical support and knowhow. Let us offer the people of Africa, their God-given rights to be able to live a decent lifestyle so that they may not be on the move.
The marginalization of women in most of the countries needs to be readdressed. We need to have new strategies for the youth; to offer them practical skills programs. These small projects will contribute to the fight against poverty. We need to increase our exports to European countries. We need to take care of the environment to be able to deal with climate change.
How do you react to the tendency for especially Black people in South Africa to view migrants with suspicion and the xenophobic attacks directed against migrants?
There are a number of causes of the xenophobic attacks towards the foreigners in South Africa. These attacks have been on the increase since the dawn of democracy in 1994.
However, one has to know that the local people of South Africa are facing a number of challenges since the fall of apartheid. One has to know that a number of our people have never been exposed to a lot of local African foreigners who look like them. Meaning they are Black and poor like them.
Our culture has been a closed culture from the rest of Africa. The apartheid system closed the people from the rest of Africa. South Africans always say, “We are going to Africa, or we are from Africa.” This means that South Africa is taken or seen as not part of Africa.
For those who do not know South Africa well, one may think that it is all a first world country. However, there is a lot of hindering poverty that is similar to that of the African continent. This hindering poverty has led to the lack of employment opportunities that has affected both the locals and the foreigners. So, there is a conflict over limited resources to all the people in South Africa. And with that is the increase in crime that politicians blame on foreigners.
We have seen a lot of organized crime; one thinks that this is due to migrants and refugees.
The local people don’t see migrants as people who can contribute to building the host communities, especially given that many of them come in with practical skills. Rather, they are seen as people who are coming in to take jobs meant for South African citizens.
What makes us sad is that there are a lot of undocumented migrants and refugees from the rest of Africa.
This is a challenge to us in the SACBC and the different departments.
Xenophobia attacks are also based on the structural and institutional discriminations. People who are migrants and refugees do find it very difficult to get help from the departments of Home Affairs and social development. Seeking proper documents, it is not easy to get the papers.
South Africa has about 70 official borders that make it very difficult to monitor and have border control. Once the migrants and refugees arrive in South Africa these foreigners go into small businesses like opening up spaza shops, which are mostly owned by Pakistanis, Somalis, Bangladeshi, and the Ethiopians. They become soft targets for looting and attacks.
People do end up taking the law in their hands. The police need to change their attitude and not be indifferent once they see the crimes and the attacks.
What has been the impact of such attacks?
Migrants have lost their lives during these attacks, and others have been forcibly re-displaced within their newfound homes. These poor people have once again lost their small belongings that they have worked very hard to get. They are now living in fear, not knowing what is going to happen next to them.
There has been a loss of human dignity and low self-esteem among these migrants and refugees. One questions the morality of the hosting country: Are we part of Africa? Are we Africans? Why are we not able to put into action the four verbs of Pope Francis: Welcome, Protect, Integrate, and Promote.
We are called to care for the vulnerable and the poor. One may ask where this “Ubuntu” spirit has gone? Our faith has also been challenged since we pray and worship with these people who are attacked now and then. Where is that call of being in solidarity, to be one’s brother and sisters’ keeper? How do we preach the gospel of loving yourself as we love our neighbors?
On the global level these xenophobic attacks have put South Africa in an unfriendly light, seen as not being hospitable and a dangerous place to visit.
What has been the role of the church in South Africa in efforts to ease the tensions?
There have been a number of efforts that we put in place to douse the tensions of the xenophobic attacks. We have used our social media, especially the radio, the pastoral letters, workshops, and meetings to condemn these attacks. The church has used its different agents to promote and highlight the human rights and dignity of the migrants’ and refugees.
The church has also reached out to other secular civil and government departments, to network, in addressing these issues together. We have also moved to neighboring countries like Eswatini and Lesotho to offer awareness workshops and programs.
There is also a great move from the Southern African Conference of Catholic Bishops [SACBC] to call upon the Caritas offices in the country, and the Justice and Peace departments, to lead in this call to a better distribution of goods and resources for the sake of the common good. Food and other materials have been supplied to the migrants.
The church has got a number of shelters that have been opened up – some near the borders or the point of entry – to offer pastoral care to migrants and refugees, so that they can live in peace with the host communities. Small business skills have been extended to them, as a way of supporting their income generation. We have been also offering medical treatment to those who are in need.
The SACBC has been able to produce pastoral care books, which are going to be used by those who are assisting the migrants and refugees.
The Roman Catholic Church in Southern Africa has been networking with the major departments that are working with migrants and refugees, like the home affairs, social development, police and education. All those different departments have been of assistance in the processing of documents. There are also other groups like the human right lawyers and the child law society and the pro bono law clinic.
We have done a lot to promote the Pope Francis documents and encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, and others. We have preached a lot on hospitality in the biblical tradition; we have shared these texts with the migrants and the refugees, and they have found them very helpful and consoling to them. In these biblical texts we see men and women of faith, kindness, generosity, hospitality, integration, and care.
We have also produced a new pastoral vision, this pastoral vision is going to be used in all the dioceses, churches, small Christian communities and sodalities. The church has been open to organizing liturgies and celebrating their home cultural feasts and festivals. These liturgical celebrations do help them to open up to the hosting country and they can create friendship with the local people.
In some of the dioceses we have taken up the project to register all the undocumented persons in our dioceses. The SACBC wants to make sure that we help in the process of making people legal in the country. We are a church of compassion and love; however, the migrants and refugees may not see this – that we are all created in the image of God.
What institutional reforms do you think need to be carried out in order to ensure that both foreigners and Indigenous South Africans enjoy similar rights?
We are to create a more humane system that is welcoming, protecting, integrating, and promoting foreigners and the Indigenous South Africans, so they enjoy similar rights. We need to talk about offering visas that are more user friendly. We need visas that give people an easy entry and exit in a regularized manner.
South Africa has been a member to a number of international signatory bodies. Why are they not keeping to the promise?
We need to deal with those migrants and refugees who are involved in bad activities, like crime and drugs. Nobody likes to see bad activities in their country. The church should condemn such evil activities done by the migrants and the refugees. We also need to make big reforms to the needs of the local people, most of the Black people are still living in poor houses, so there is a need for the government to improve the lives of the people. The local people should not be used by the political parties that need to bring about changes by turning their anger to the foreigners; they should not be supporting those who harass and attack them or loot their shops and drive them out of their homes. We need political reforms that don’t use foreigners as scapegoats.
We have to deal with the fear of the others – the generalization that all the foreigners are involved in drugs and crime. Such wholesale condemnation does not help us to make South Africa a better country.
We need to revisit the constitution of South Africa: It is said that it is one of the best constitutions in the world. However, it is not used and followed. This constitution calls upon us to share all the resources and materials with all the people found in South Africa. We need to use the constitution to improve the lifestyle and living conditions of the South African citizens.
We need to share the pastoral vision with all the people in our local churches and the migrants and the refugees. We have got to use the social teaching of the church to deal with human abuse. Advocacy and networking with the local and the international levels is needed. We need to make sure that our churches are not also exploiting those migrants and refugees, by employing them without documents. At times we also pay them slave wages.
All in all migrants and refugees are part of our life and they are human beings in need. We need to see ourselves in their own image and see the human face and dignity before we attack them. We are all called to join the Holy Father in welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating the people on the move. We are all on the move and the church is on the move and this is the joy and blessing.