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May 23, 2012

South Africa Hosts Diaspora Summit

by Emilie Iob

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa is hosting a first-ever African Diaspora Summit to bring prominent Africans abroad into contact with the continent's leaders to discuss ways of harnessing their expertise for African development. The main theme is unity and tapping what is considered the underutilized talents of the African diaspora. But the host city is not necessarily a good example of unity among African immigrant communities.

Nigerian immigrant Jude Umennaka stands in front of the Radium hotel in downtown Johannesburg.  He worked here until four years ago when the the place came under attack during a night of deadly xenophobic violence.  Many foreigners were staying there.

"I was called by the manager who was assisting me and he told me there was problems here," Umennaka recalled. "I rushed down here.  I saw a group of people carrying a whole lot of weapons, chasing the people from up to town.  And I ran away.  I came back after one hour or two, everything here has been looted.  I never expected it.  It was a surprise."

The Radium was one of many places and people victimized on that night of anti-foreigner violence in and around Johannesburg.  In the weeks that followed, riots and attacks on non-South Africans spread throughout the country.  The attacks left more than 60 dead, hundreds injured, and displaced thousands from their homes.

Analysts said the hostility toward African immigrants stemmed from many causes, including an intense competition for jobs and housing in impoverished areas.

Umennaka says at least he wasn't hurt but he lost his job.  Four years later, he thinks that things are slowly getting better.

"The government are doing their best.  They have a lot of awareness campaigns to lecture these people.  And anything about issues of inciting xenophonbic crisis in this time around is a very big punishable offense," he said.

'Systematic Prejudice'

But Jason Chiwuzie Osuafor, the president of a Nigerian immigrants organization, says there is still progress to be made.  He says there is systematic prejudice here - by those who are supposed to protect the law.

'The main problem that comes often is one of police brutality.  Between last year and this year, we've registered 10 Nigerians killed by policemen in mysterious circumstances," said Osuafor.
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Most African immigrants in South Africa arrived after the end of apartheid, in the 1990s.  Most of them came to find a job, or to flee their war-torn countries.  Today, about five million immigrants live in South Africa.

Many thought they would find acceptance and understanding in a country which had overcome legalized brutal racial discrimination.  But Aurelia Segatti, researcher at the Center for Migration and Society in Johannesburg, says hostility is not that surprising in a country with South Africa's legacy.

"We have to realize that it's a country that has gone through extremely difficult times, and socio-economical challenges are still there," said Segatti. "Economical disparities have increased since 1990.  For the poorest part of the population, the foreigners, who happen to be African, is the perfect scapegoat to blame for an ever-growing socio-economical frustration."

Seeking a better life

In bustling Yeoville - the so-called immigrants neighborhood of Johannesburg - Congolese, Ivorians, Zimbabweans and Nigerians occupy many of the homes.  In fact, immigrants from more than 30 African countries live together.

In his office off the main street, Marc Gbaffou prepares for his meeting with the minister of home affairs.  Gbaffou is the president of the African Diaspora Forum, a platform created in 2008 after the xenophobic attacks.

"In the past, we were working as isolated communities," he said.  "So for instance, one community felt that they have to speak to government, that was very difficult for us.  So we said we have to create a platform which is a migrants' platform, and when we speak on one voice for our common issue."

The African Diaspora Forum organizes the annual commemoration of the xenophobic attacks, and coordinates action by representatives of different communities of immigrants. And it seems to work, according to Gbaffou.

"With South Africans, with some leaders, we made good improvement.  Because at least, most of the projects which are happening in the community, leaders let us know about it, and want us to be part of the project.  So there are good progress," he said.

In the aftermath of the 2008 attacks, hundreds were arrested and more than 100 convicted for xenophobic violence.  But the prejudice and many of the causes for the violence remain.

Despite this, and the difficulty of the immigration process, South Africa remains the top destination for Africans looking for a better life.