To many, South Africa sets the standard for development on the continent.
It’s home to some of the biggest gold mines in the world. The beautiful Cape of Good Hope and wild Kruger National Park draw tourists from around the world. The human rights-based constitution is lauded globally, a product of visionaries such as Nelson Mandela.
Hundreds of thousands of Africans fleeing poverty and war in their home countries move to South Africa, seeking peace and prosperity.
Upon arriving, though, they often are unable to earn enough to afford even basics like housing, food, child care and school fees. On top of crippling poverty, many find they also are facing threats and violence.
MCC is responding by supporting partner organizations, often staffed by refugees themselves, who are providing education, child care, job training, support groups and emergency assistance for people striving to make their way in a new country.
These projects can mean dramatic change in the lives of people like Pelagie Kutazana.
Kutazana, who fled Rwanda with her brother in 1994 after her parents and all their other siblings were murdered in the genocide, came with her husband to South Africa in 1998 by way of Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique.
She worked as a car guard, one of the worst-paying jobs in the country. Six days a week from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., she watched over cars, protecting them from thieves for no wage, just tips. It’s often the only job refugees can find because many businesses and organizations won’t hire them.
On a good day, Kutazana could make about $10. Together with her husband, they could put together just enough money for rent and food. Once she had a son, she hoped to find a safe place she could leave him as she worked.
"We need a safe place to leave our children when we go out to look for jobs."
- Pelagie Kutazana
Eventually Kutazana, like other refugee mothers she knew in the city of Durban, would get up early, put on an orange vest and hat, prepare food and reluctantly lock her nine-month-old infant in the apartment while she and her husband went to work.
She constantly worried for the safety of her son.
Then, in 2002, pregnant with her second child and desperate to find child care, Kutazana heard about a group of refugee women who had the same problem and were meeting at a nearby beach, a free gathering place, on Sundays to brainstorm solutions.
The group began meeting after one woman’s daughter fell out of a third story window while the mother was at work and her children were unsupervised, says Petronella Nzirire Mulume. The girl wasn’t seriously injured, but it was only a matter of time.
“We said, ‘This is not working for us. We need a safe place to leave our children when we go out to look for jobs,’” recalls Mulume.
For just over a dollar, any refugee woman could become a founding member of the group and the money would go toward hiring a caregiver to watch over the children.
Kutazana jumped at the chance to provide a better alternative for her children and became a member of what’s now known as the Union of Refugee Women, an MCC partner. Her children — who at that time were two years old and a month old — became some of the first to receive care.
Today, Children’s Care Centre, with Mulume serving as program manager, is a haven in Durban’s poverty-stricken central business district. The rusty metal gates that protect the entrance of an old factory building are a stark contrast to the inviting, brightly painted murals in the centre, which is on the fourth floor of the building.
The sounds of children counting and singing drown out the honking of bus drivers on the busy street outside. About half of the 124 children at the centre are from refugee families. Because of the quality of education and affordable cost, South African parents are bringing their children as well.
Kutazana now has six children, and the centre has played an important role in the lives of all of them.
Her youngest children, a two-year-old boy and four-year-old twins, are currently enrolled. “When I put them in the crèche (nursery), I was not worried about them. I knew they were going to eat, they were going to learn, their nappies would be changed. I knew they would be okay,” she says.
Kutazana credits the early learning and care at the centre for laying the foundation for her older children’s education. Her eldest son is enrolled in university, her second son is finishing high school, and her third child is in grade 1 and at the top of his class.
With care for her children, she was able to go back to school for a hospitality diploma. Today, she has a small catering business and sells fruit, vegetables, snack foods, canned goods and dry goods at a shop she owns.
Kutazana, working from behind bars at her shop, knows that no matter how many years she’s been in South Africa, she’s still seen as a foreigner. And she knows that foreigners who have businesses, or even jobs, are at risk in South Africa.
Unemployment is at a 14-year high at 36.4 per cent and jobless South Africans feel particularly jealous of foreigners who have an income, however meagre. Over the years, waves of violence have been directed toward newcomers. Many shops owned by those who have come to South Africa from other countries have been set on fire or looted in the last decade.
In 2015, Mahatma Gandhi Road, just a block away from the centre, was the scene of violent riots. While people set fire to tires around the block, the centre, which is seen as a refuge for South African families as well as refugees, was not harmed. But Kutazana couldn’t open her shop for a week because it was so dangerous, and the
produce rotted on the shelf.
The danger runs deeper than damage to property.
In 2008, Louis Balekeleyi, who is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was on his way home after a long day of guarding cars. He had made 50 rand, about $5, and was exhausted. He said a few words to someone, trying to keep quiet in case his accent would betray him, when a South African man overheard.
When Balekeleyi stepped out of the bus, he felt a sharp pain in his back and blood dripping down. The man stabbed him once in the back and stole the money he had on him. “He wanted to kill me,” says Balekeleyi, a father of three who spent the next month in the hospital.
After he recovered, the family moved from the outskirts of Durban into the city, where they felt they’d be safer, but rent skyrocketed.
That’s where Balekeleyi and his wife Mpoyo Ruth Ngoie became connected
to Refugee Social Services (RSS), an MCC partner, and received rent and food support for two months, as well as some other assistance.
Today, both are reaching out to others in the French- and Lingala-speaking refugee community in Durban, even as they continue to face discrimination and insults from South Africans.
Through RSS, Balekeleyi, a graduate student, educates newcomers working as car guards at a shopping mall in northwest Durban about HIV and AIDS testing and prevention. Ngoie is a part-time community wellness worker.
RSS has many outreaches, from support groups for older refugees to access to social workers who connect refugees with what help is available. But it’s the only organization of its kind in the entire province of KwaZulu-Natal, just over 93,000 square kilometres, slightly bigger than the state of Iowa.
Balekeleyi and Ngoie say they know that if there’s an emergency they can turn to the staff for help and support. “If it wasn’t for RSS, I don’t know where we’d be,” Balekeleyi says.
Ngoie adds a note of caution. “But this country is still very uncertain,” she says, “and we live in fear.”