As migration to South Africa swells, one man helps bridge cultural divides

For migrants living in South Africa, violence from locals can be a regular experience. That's why Marc Gbaffou is encouraging dialogue and community engagement between the two groups. 

Mxolisi Ncube
Activist Marc Gbaffou (c.) is among those paying respect while the South African national anthem is sung.

Marc Gbaffou is the go-to guy for migrants in South Africa when they’re dealing with problems, especially threats of violence.

As chairman of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), a nonprofit organization he founded a decade ago to safeguard the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers, he’s keenly interested in the welfare of the millions of such individuals living and working in South Africa.

And they aren’t shy about approaching him. While Mr. Gbaffou was taking part in an interview, the interruptions were constant, as migrant after migrant sought the activist’s attention.

They wanted to do everything from obtain guidance on South Africa’s migration policy and complain about ill treatment and institutional harassment, to raise the alarm about brewing attacks and pour out concerns about various moves by government officials.

“Everyone wants a piece of him, and he cannot say no to anyone,” says Martha Bikuelo, a refugee from Congo (former Zaire) who is an ADF official. “Marc is a father figure who has an ear for everyone’s problem, no matter how big or small.”

According to a 2016 survey by Statistics South Africa, there are 1.6 million migrants in South Africa – less than 3 percent of the overall population. The so-called rainbow nation is one of the most popular for asylum-seekers, but like other countries, South Africa has had challenges as newcomers and locals have interacted. Violence has been a particular concern.

Gbaffou, himself a refugee, is a prominent figure trying to address the issues. In addition to helping migrants directly, he’s fostering dialogue between them and locals. Perhaps the most visible example of his efforts is the ADF’s annual Africa Week Carnival, which is attended by as many as 15,000 migrants and locals in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city.

“We have realized that hate for foreigners is largely caused by assumptions and stereotypes on migrants,” Gbaffou says. “As the ADF, we seek to help migrants assimilate and be accepted in the local communities they live in.”

Why migrants go to South Africa

The largest percentage of migrants in South Africa are Zimbabwean, with many of them fleeing economic crisis and political repression. Others come from as far away as Bangladesh and Pakistan, attracted in part by policies that allow asylum-seekers to work while their applications are reviewed.

Many locals have been wary of migrants, claiming that they rob South Africans of jobs and public services and exacerbate crime. The country’s unemployment rate – nearly 28 percent – certainly hasn’t helped the situation.

Such sentiments have periodically flared into violence. Arguably the worst episode occurred in 2008, when hundreds of South Africans, armed with clubs and knives, turned on the foreigners. At least 62 people died, thousands of others were displaced, and property was looted and destroyed.

It was shortly after the attacks – often referred to as xenophobic violence – that Gbaffou formed the ADF. “The 2008 xenophobia showed us that migrants in this country need urgent protection,” he says. “We, therefore, formed the African Diaspora Forum to give migrants a platform to voice their concerns and restore their dignity.”

Gbaffou was born in Ivory Coast. He immigrated to South Africa in 1997 after, he says, he was hounded out of his home country by the administration of then-President Henri Konan Bédié, because of his pro-opposition student activism.

Gbaffou is also a food technician, meaning he assists scientists in such things as testing the quality of food products and conducting research. He runs a private company in Johannesburg.

Since its formation, the ADF has seen its membership balloon from seven members to 8,000. During that time, sporadic attacks have been common. The violence is a bitter obstacle in realizing the old dream of Pan-Africanism.

One person whom the ADF has helped is Ms. Bikuelo. She first met Gbaffou in 2013, after speaking on the radio about the problems she had encountered in trying to apply for asylum in Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital.

Gbaffou “called the radio station after the program, asking for my number,” she says. “His intervention helped me and a number of other migrants get asylum-seekers’ permits in no time.”

The ADF tries to bridge the gap between migrants and locals by holding regular community dialogue sessions.

“Some locals still do not fully understand the reasons that keep pushing people to South Africa, so during the dialogue, migrants unpack the crises in their home countries and show how migration became their best option,” Gbaffou says. “The engagements have helped many South Africans realize that their fellow African brothers and sisters need ... love and protection, not hate and discrimination.”

Under the leadership of Gbaffou, the ADF, working with other nongovernmental organizations, has scored significant progress, according to Ngqabutho Mabhena, chairman of the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa group. “Since the formation of the ADF, we have seen some locals stand up to join migrant communities in fighting xenophobia,” says Mr. Mabhena, who was recently voted the ADF deputy chairman responsible for the Southern African Development Community region. “There are now communities where you cannot abuse a migrant for who they are because locals have built a human security fence around them.”

A signature event

In 2010, the ADF launched the Africa Week Carnival, which has become its signature event. The carnival is held in May (May 25 is Africa Day) for eight days. Through marches, dialogue, speeches, sports, song, and dance, migrants and locals share their cultures and chart a better future for migrants.

The event begins with a candlelit ceremony to mark the migrant lives lost to violence. “The candle lighting is meant to plead for those departed souls to rest in peace, while also praying for an end to xenophobia,” says Johnson Emeka, a Nigerian migrant who is also an ADF spokesman. “Hundreds of people attend the candle lighting every year, and they include political leaders, African leaders from various countries, diaspora community leaders, interfaith ministers, and government authorities.”

Government authorities have joined the ADF’s efforts, too. The Gauteng Provincial Government has become the major sponsor of the Africa Week Carnival.

The joint operations between the ADF and Gauteng government have led to community forums and opened discussions about ways of minimizing attacks on migrants. Key among the outcomes has been the establishment of early-warning systems regarding possible attacks.

“It is our duty as Gauteng government to ensure that everyone who comes into this province feels safe and able to participate in the development of this country, and that is why we entered into partnership with the ADF, which works well with government to safeguard the rights of our African brothers and sisters,” says David Makhura, premier of Gauteng province.

Mr. Makhura has high praise for Gbaffou: “Since the beginning of our partnership, we have achieved a lot in our attempts to foster social cohesion, and that is partly because the ADF is being led by a visionary and able leader like Marc Gbaffou.”

The ADF’s efforts to improve security, Gbaffou notes, aren’t solely for the benefit of migrants. The organization is also involved in exposing foreigners who are involved in crime. “We strongly discourage migrants from involvement in criminal activities. Everyone in South Africa, migrants included, must obey the law,” Gbaffou says.

King Bungane III of the Embo Kingdom, a South African traditional leader, sums up Gbaffou by describing him as more than a migrant leader. “Mr. Gbaffou is doing what very few community leaders in South Africa are doing,” he says. “He is a complete Pan-Africanist who deserves recognition. In the Embo Kingdom, we know him as the ultimate voice of Africans – the ultimate ambassador of all Africans.”

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