Two men, two countries, two minorities

Posted by admin on Sep 3rd, 2009

Herman Wasserman and Sean Jacobs, Globe and Mail, Sep. 03, 2009

It is a tale of two countries, seen through the eyes of two men. One’s claim of persecution has been widely reported internationally. The other’s desperation only made headlines when it finally led to his death. Together, they illustrate the paradox of postapartheid South Africa. If it wasn’t so insulting to the real targets of the country’s high crime rate, the first man’s story would be funny – indeed, the response among many South Africans was incredulous laughter.

Brandon Huntley, a white South African who had overstayed his Canadian work permit, applied for refugee status on the grounds that should he return home, he would be persecuted by black South Africans. He was granted refugee status by an immigration board panel in Ottawa last week. The Canadian tribunal chair ruled that there was “clear and convincing proof of the state’s inability or unwillingness to protect him,” adding: “I find that the claimant would stand out like a ‘sore thumb’ due to his colour in any part of the country.”

The South African government decried the decision as racist, since it was based on the assumption that white people are singled out for persecution in what one Tweeter called an “imaginary pogrom.”

If anything it is poor blacks, who are the most frequent victims of violent crime in South Africa and cannot afford the protection of the private security guards who now outnumber police there, who have a case for refugee status. Will Canada or other Western governments grant it to everyone who has a story about being hijacked, robbed or mugged?

The claim that white people stand out in South Africa is so nonsensical that it does not deserve comment. White people might be a minority numerically, but economically, they remain a majority. A recent survey by the South African Human Rights Commission found that 61 per cent of the top positions in companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange were occupied by white males.

Mr. Huntley acknowledged that he never pursued charges related to the alleged attacks. “There’s a hatred of what we did to them and it’s all about the colour of your skin,” he told the tribunal. But poor black South Africans have turned on other blacks, including immigrants from neighbouring African countries (as in the xenophobic attacks of 2008). They largely hold the state and the ruling party (both majority black) responsible for their plight, as can increasingly be seen in protests against lack of service delivery in the townships and strike action by labour unions.

That a Canadian court could take this seriously boggles the mind.

But there is a story of another type of desperation, this one very real, that has not made the headlines or front pages of international newspapers: The suicide death of 22-year-old Skhumbuzo Douglas Mhlongo in Durban.

According to the Johannesburg newspaper Business Day, Mr. Mhlongo was a part-time employee at a pet-food factory. He was offered a full-time position that he could not start until he got his identity document. The Department of Home Affairs, which issues IDs, sent him from pillar to post. In South Africa, you don’t exist without this document. You’re not a citizen in your own country.

Poor people struggle to obtain IDs and the costs incurred to get them are prohibitively expensive – especially for Mr. Mhlongo, who borrowed heavily to finance his living expenses and then to pay for travelling to and from the Home Affairs department’s offices. Mr. Mhlongo reportedly killed himself after an official tore up his application because he was not convinced that he was indeed South African and not a makwerekwere , as foreign nationals are pejoratively called.

Who, in these two tales, is the threatened minority? The privileged white émigré with recourse to plane tickets and immigration lawyers? Or the poor black factory worker who, shunned by his own government and unable to get citizenship in his own country, saw death as his only escape?

Herman Wasserman and Sean Jacobs are South African media scholars.

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