South Africa can now strip refugees of their asylum status if they engage in any political activity related to their home countries, according to a new law that critics call illegal and deeply ironic after the ruling party fought the former apartheid government for years as a liberation movement in exile.
Representatives of refugees and asylum seekers say they will go to court to challenge the new law which they say limits freedoms of speech and expression guaranteed under South Africa’s constitution, a globally praised document created after the racist system of apartheid ended and the African National Congress came to power.
The new law quietly took effect Jan. 1, startling a community of refugees from around the continent who have long relied on the freedom in South Africa to speak out against what they call repressive governments back home in places such as Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Burundi and Congo.
Asked whether the ban on political activities — including voting — contradicted the ruling ANC’s own history in exile in African nations, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi asserted to local outlet News24 last week that the circumstances are hardly the same.
“The ANC people who lived in countries did not go there to say, ‘I am a refugee, just protect me.’ They went there and said, ‘I am a freedom fighter,’” said Motsoaledi, whose bio says he was involved with the ANC’s armed wing during apartheid.
The minister also described the leaders of some African nations that people have fled as being “democratically elected,” which human rights groups would reject.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame won the last election with nearly 100% of the vote, Zimbabwe’s army opened fire on people protesting after its most recent election and the U.N. human rights office has called Burundi “one of the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times” over its election turmoil.
As questions over the new law continue, however, the Home Affairs minister on Tuesday told the South African Broadcasting Corporation “it might be that the wording might have been wrong” and if so, “we will correct it.”
But Motsoaledi defended the new requirement that any political activity by refugees first obtain his permission, comparing it to getting authorities’ permission for a public protest.
“We need to know if it’s wrong and it’s going to cause war in the (home) country,” he told the state broadcaster. “We need to warn them and say, ‘No, no, no, this will cause war with our neighbors, it’s not good for us.’”
That sentiment worries some refugees.
During an interview, one Rwandan activist and refugee, Gabriel Hertis, paged through the South African constitution’s Bill of Rights, which the constitutional court says “has had the greatest impact on life in this country.”
“This new law is against all I’m looking at,” he said, listing guarantees of equality, dignity, freedom of association and more. “This is an attempt to change the constitution through back-door channels.”
For years, some African governments have complained to South Africa about the activities of people who fled here and found a relatively safe place to be outspoken, and until now South Africa had withstood the pressure, Hertis asserted.
He worried that informers with Rwanda’s government, which has been accused of hunting down opposition figures outside its borders, will now approach South African officials and say, “Those people are doing politics.”
South Africa “is inviting the interference of governments,” Hertis said.
The new law will have a “drastic effect” both on newcomers and those already in South Africa, said the spokesman of the African Diaspora Forum, which represents refugees and others from around the continent.
“We might even see extraditions,” Amir Sheikh told the AP, comparing the actions to U.S. President Donald Trump’s restrictive executive orders regarding refugees.
Many asylum-seekers see South Africa as the most obvious choice of refuge on the African continent, said Alicia Raymond, an attorney and lecturer with the Wits Law Clinic at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“They’ve heard of Nelson Mandela and they think they’ll be protected,” she said, referring to the Nobel Peace Prize winner and South Africa’s first black president. She also recalled people marching a few years ago in protest against South Africa’s periodic bouts of xenophobic violence.
“That act could exclude people from refugee status” now, she said. “It does not make sense.” She doesn’t think the new law would withstand a constitutional challenge.
The new law is the latest example of the difficulties asylum seekers face in South Africa, where some 89,000 people are recognized as refugees but some 180,000 people are waiting for word on their claims, Sharon Ekambaram of Lawyers for Human Rights told the state broadcaster on Tuesday. Some have been waiting for more than a decade.
Some of them protested last year at the offices of the United Nations refugee agency in the capital, Pretoria, and in Cape Town, seeking better protection and even evacuation after South Africa’s latest outburst of xenophobic violence against foreigners.
Ekambaram said her legal group managed to meet with the Home Affairs minister about those and other issues last year — after six years of trying.