David Smith
David Smith

A good woman in the Congo

I was thinking about xenophobia today. In fact, these days I think about it far too often. The death of a friend in Kinshasa prompts today’s thoughts.

Nathalie Muteba was a young and extremely gifted journalist at Radio Okapi, a national radio network covering the Democratic Republic of Congo. On Friday Nathalie died suddenly of a heart attack; she was nine months pregnant. It’s almost certain that Nathalie would be alive today if she had had access to the sort of health care that is available in Johannesburg hospitals and clinics. Had Nathalie not been employed by Radio Okapi, there’s a good chance she would have been living in South Africa, as so many of her educated peers are because of the almost hopeless job situation at home.

The same day Nathalie died, Radio Okapi ran a story about the troubles in South Africa’s refugee camps. The story explained, through an interview with on official from a Pretoria-based, non governmental organisation helping the refugees, why there has been so much reluctance to sign up for new temporary documents from Home Affairs. The reluctance is two fold: most of the Congolese in the camps hold two-year residence permits. They aren’t in the refugee camps because of problems with paperwork; they are in the camps because they are afraid. They are afraid of returning to the South African communities that turned violently against them because they are foreigners. And they fear that the new documents Home Affairs wants them to sign for, valid for only six months, will force them to relive some of the horrors they have recently escaped while at the same time removing some of the rights they have with their existing residence permits.

These fears are not difficult to understand. Interviews in the media with thugs boasting about nightly attacks on foreigners, as appeared in this week’s Sunday Times don’t help to put already nervous people at ease. It’s not just the Congolese who have these fears; the story is the same with all the refugees living in South Africa, whether they are Congolese, Mozambican, Zimbabwean, or anybody else.

It’s sad to say but refugees from Darfur get better treatment in camps in the Chadian desert than Africans who have been the victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa do. In Chad, neither the United Nation’s refugee agency nor the Chadian government is threatening to close the camps before the security situation in Darfur has stabilised. Handicapped as it is, the international community is at least trying to find a peaceful solution to that crisis.

While South Africa is certainly not Darfur, fear is fear, and for this fear to be overcome, the people of the camps need some kind of assurance that their concerns are being addressed, and not just through words, but through concrete actions.

That brings me back to Nathalie Muteba. Nathalie was part of a team of journalists at Sun City in 2002 during the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, a process lasting several months that brought various belligerent parties in the war in the DRC to the negotiating table, It was a period of hope; a period when Congolese thought that perhaps their country, a country so often prefaced with the word potential, might be on the threshold of a period of peace and prosperity; a period during which accountants and doctors and teachers would not have to consider helping South Africans find parking spots at Eastgate.
That dreamed-of period has not arrived. War lords continue to sow terror in the east, the president of the republic appears out of his depth for dealing with the problems of a country where the word kleptocracy was coined, and the politician most popular in the capital city is in jail in The Hague, answering to charges of war crimes he allegedly committed in a neighbouring country.

South Africa’s refugee problem is not going to go away. It’s time to find a way to make them feel at home, so that they can contribute to nation building here. However they can only contribute effectively if they are made to feel welcome.

Meanwhile, back in the Congo, I would like to believe that, despite her untimely death, Nathalie Muteba did not die in vain. She and many others have been working towards the creation of a country where the best and the brightest don’t have to leave home and be treated as second-class citizens in a foreign land.

Rest in Peace Nathalie.