By Richard Chidowore
Enock Matli, 21, was indemnified against charges relating to his “illegal” exit from South Africa, and he returned to his country from exile in Botswana on 13 January. But shortly after his return Matli was arrested and charged with assault and robbery.

Whether Matli is found guilty or not, the fact remains that for exiles, the situation back home has changed for the worse.

For Matli and the rest of the returning exiles, their only hope is a blanket amnesty. This would ensure that there are no arbitrary arrests and harassments.

The recent Association of West European Parliamentarians Against Apartheid (AWEPAA) conference held in the Botswana capital, Gaborone, came up with a 10-point Plan of Action whose second point was a calI for “International Campaign for Refugees in Southern Africa”.

The declaration was reached after participants were given first-hand accounts on the fate of refugees in the region.

The focus on South Africa was quite bleak as delegate after delegate from that country talked about the uncertainties facing former exiles and the inhuman treatment of Mozambican refugees.

The Plan of Action called for pressure on South Africa to grant a general amnesty to all exiles instead of the current indemnity where exiles are required to list all “offences” committed before leaving the country.

Apart from haphazard arrests and intimidation, the few exiles that have returned to South Africa (only 8,000 out of 40,000) face acute shortage of accommodation, employment opportunities and education facilities.

In a country where only 12 out of 100 school leavers have prospects of finding employment, the chances for returning exiles of getting a job are slim.

According to Moss Chikane, national co-ordinator of the National Co-ordinating Committee for the Repatriation of Exiles (NCCR), the organization has not been successful in finding employment for most exiles. A few have found work in the NCCR, the trade unions and other non-governmental organisations.

“Very few have found their way into the private sector,” Chikane said.

The NCCR was set up as an integration structure for exiles in May 1990. It was created by different liberation movements, religious and professional organizations and it is the implementing partner of the United Nations High commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The situation is not better on the education front. The country has more than 8 million children who are out of school. This has created enrolment problems for exiles hoping to further their educational and training needs on return to South Africa.

Accommodation is another headache for former exiles. There are hardly any facilities prepared for their return. The AWEPAA conference was told that the South African government demands payment for any service that it might offer to the returning exiles.
“What kind of government would ask its citizens to pay for their return instead of accommodating them?” asked a South African delegate.

Analysts point out that due to lack of accommodation, most exiles might find themselves living among some 7 million squatters in South Africa’s townships.

The UNHCR caters for exiles for the first six months, with a grant of R4,000 spread over six months for adults and as little as R600 for children. This, however, is inadequate to cover food, accommodation and basic requirements.

‘The money is not even enough for me to trace my relatives,” said Siphiwe Mathe, who was in exile for 15 years.

The call by the European parliamentarians for South Africa to adopt international standards in the
Treatment of refugees cannot be overemphasised. The way South Africa treats Mozambican refugees is well documented. Instead of according them refugee status, the government of President FW de Klerk labels more than 250,000 Mozambican refugees – “illegal immigrants”.

Refugee status is imperative, not only to ensure assistance from international organizations, but to avoid their forced repatriation.

A few fortunate ones have registered with Operation Hunger, a South African non-governmental
Organization (NGO). Operation Hunger, with the help of some churches provide the refugees with food and “poles and plastics” for accommodation.

It is shocking to realise that more than 150 years after slave trade was banned in the Americas, the trade is still prevalent in South Africa. Mozambican refugees, fleeing from Mozambique National Resistance (MNR) atrocities find themselves toiling in Boer farms in the same way slaves were treated in American sugar plantations.

What option do these refugees have when they are threatened with deportation or being handed over to the police or worse still to MNR?

The few who manage to escape this slavery often cross back into Mozambique on their way to Malawi, where the ravaging drought has taken its toll in refugee camps.

Delegates from the South Africa Council of Churches (SACC) told the seminar that they had numerous meetings with the National Party (NP) government to try and resolve the treatment of refugees but these meetings achieved very little because of lack of cooperation from the government.

To curb the crossings into South Africa by fleeing Mozambicans, the South African government erected a 65 km electric fence running across the Mozambican border. More than 900 people have been killed over the last six years by the fence.

International pressure forced South Africa to reduce the voltage of the fence. There is need, however, to step up pressure for the total dismantling of this inhuman fence.

As one AWEPAA delegate rightly put it – “reduced for what, the fence must go.” (SARDC)

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