The long road to SA citizenship for former Angolan refugees

2017-02-15 07:57
Members of the Francisco family with their applications for permanent residency. (The Scalabrini Centre)

Members of the Francisco family with their applications for permanent residency. (The Scalabrini Centre)

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Cape Town - Nineteen years ago, Kazi Irene Boaventura, aged 7, and her 3-year-old brother Filipe fled with their mother to South Africa from Angola, as full-scale fighting again broke out in a protracted and brutal civil war.

Granted refugee status, the family settled in Cape Town to start a new life.

Now 26 and employed as a manager at an upscale Cape Town restaurant, Boaventura thinks of herself as South African. But her life in South Africa could end if home affairs did not grant her leave to stay on in the country.

Boaventura and her brother are no longer classed as refugees, but they are not permanent residents or citizens of South Africa either. And their siblings are not alone.

Roughly 2 000 former Angolan refugees will apply to the Department of Home Affairs on Wednesday to be granted permanent resident status under an exemption in the Immigration Act. The section allows Minister Malusi Gigaba to grant a “category of foreigners the rights of permanent residence for a specified or unspecified period when special circumstances exist”.

If Boaventura and her brother’s applications are unsuccessful, they could possibly appeal the decision, said Charlotte Manicom, advocacy officer at refugee rights group Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town.

And if this appeal is unsuccessful?

“The applicant would become an illegal foreigner and would be obliged to leave South Africa,” she said.

At the Scalabrini centre’s offices on Monday, Boaventura - “like Ace Ventura” she jokes, is adamant that special circumstances exist. She hasn’t gone back to Angola since fleeing in 1998.

“Growing up here from the age of 7 to the age of 26 I relate to South African life, I relate to South African culture. I went to school here: primary, high school and college. I work here. I am a registered taxpayer, I am a registered medical aid payer. I don’t have a criminal record.

“I feel like I belong here. I grew up and was raised here. I feel this is my citizenship.”

After making the long journey south to Cape Town via Namibia in 1998, Boaventura said her family settled in Gugulethu. While she and her brother attended a local primary school, their mother made arduous trips back to Angola to sell goods she bought in South Africa for a small profit.  

Times were hard for the whole family. When their mother left on her month-long business trips, they would be sent to stay with her friends, some the siblings had never met before. At other times, they lived at a homeless shelter for young women and children in Eerste River.

She would stay in Angola for up to a year.

The siblings later went to Sarepta Secondary School in Kuils River, where they excelled academically.

But in 2006, when Boaventura was in grade 8 and her brother Filipe in the year below her, their mother did not return. Tears well in eyes as she remembers how she waited for news.

“It was just me and Filipe and we were stuck at the shelter,” she said.

For two years, there was no word from their mother. One day in 2008, the shelter received a call to say she was sick.

“She passed away the end of 2009 or early 2010, I am not sure on the date, we got very little information. I did not have the means to follow up in Angola.”

The siblings - still both refugees, were now on their own.

'I call them mom and dad'

Help came from an unexpected quarter. In 2008, the siblings met a local family who were involved with the shelter via a church outreach project. They were from Eerste River, had only one son and asked the siblings if they wanted to stay with them.

She sought the advice of a teacher who had taken her under her wing. The teacher, and a social worker, met the family to establish their bona fides.

The family could not legally adopt Boaventura and her brother as they were minors without parents or legal guardians. But they could stay with the family, and their house in Eerste River became a new home.

“We still stay with the family today. I call them mom and dad,” said Boaventura.

Boaventura completed her matric in 2009, and her brother in 2010. Both received university exemptions. She was accepted to study BCom Law at the University of the Western Cape, while Filipe was accepted to study accounting at the University of Cape Town.

The siblings could however not get funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme as they were not South Africans. The family that took them in didn't have money to help out. Reluctantly putting their dreams of university study aside, they started working.

Boaventura got a job at a Spur restaurant, first as a waiter and later as manager. Filipe took a job at a Shoprite warehouse in Brackenfell, packing shelves and operating forklifts. Their plan was to save money so they could study further.

Her brother was unhappy at work - he needed a job that was intellectually more taxing.

“He was too smart. If he did this, he would do this for the rest of his life,” Boaventura said.

Young members of the Garcia and Francisco families hold files containing applications for permanent residency. (The Scalabrini Centre)

Cessation of refugee status

By 2012, they had saved enough for Filipe to start a three-year, part-time accountancy degree at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Boaventura, meanwhile, had been accepted into the International Hotel School, studying with the help of a grant from wine and spirit company KWV South Africa.

But money was still extremely tight. After completing two years of her degree, she was forced to drop out, so that Filipe would have enough money to complete his degree. “He did really well. He got four distinctions,” she said proudly.

Her studies, meanwhile, opened a door into the hospitality industry. She now works as a manager at a successful Cape Town restaurant.  

Filipe, currently completing an internship, is set to attend Stellenbosch University next year to continue studying accountancy.

While the Boaventura siblings were finishing school and starting their adult lives, the situation of refugees who fled Angola was changing.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had, since 2009, been preparing the ground for the “cessation” of refugee status for Angolans who had fled the violence of the country’s 27-year-long civil war.  

The war officially ended in 2002, with the death of UNITA commander Jonas Savimbi, and the signing of the Luena Peace Agreement.

On June 30, 2012, the “cessation” came into effect, and those who fled would no longer be afforded refugee status by the UN refugee body or host governments.

2000 lives built in SA

“We are working with the governments of origin and of asylum to find solutions for those refugees who wish either to return home or to remain in their host countries due to strong ties there,” UNHCR spokesperson, Adrian Edwards, said in a statement in 2012.  

Following the refugee body’s report, South Africa’s Cabinet announced the “cessation date” for Angolan refugees in South Africa would be August 31, 2013.

“South Africa recognises Angola as a democratic state that has made significant transitions since the end of the civil war,” government spokesperson Phumla Williams said at the time.

The UNHCR, the Angolan government and South African authorities helped the refugees apply for Angolan passports, which would become their legal documents when their refugee permits expired.

The former refugees were given three options. The first was repatriation to Angola, an unpopular option that few former refugees took up. The second was applying for “continued protection” as asylum seekers. According to home affairs, none did. The third and most popular option was for “special permits” to let them stay on for another two years.

About 2000 former refugees applied for and were granted these Angolan Cessation Permits (ACP). Boaventura and her brother both received ACP permits.

These permits were in effect temporary two-year visas, and home affairs envisaged that, during this time, the former refugees could apply for other permits to stay on in the country under the Immigration Act.

A new difficulty soon became apparent. In mid-2015, former refugees started to approach the government in the belief that they could renew these special permits, only to find they couldn’t be extended.

To stay on in South Africa, they had to apply for work permits. Few refugees however, fell into the category of scarce skills - occupations such as pathologists, radiologists, and marine engineers, which would make their applications under the Immigration Act easier.

Working as chefs, waiters, taxi drivers or small business owners, the former refugees found their skills were not in demand.

In early 2016, fearing that the former refugees could be deported, The Scalabrini Centre approached the Western Cape High Court.

It set its hopes on section 31(2)(b) of the Immigration Act, which lets the home affairs minister grant permanent residency under “special conditions”.

The centre won a first victory in April 2016, when the court granted an interim order stopping the department and police from arresting or deporting 835 named applicants, former Angolan refugees, while the matter was being heard.

In November, Judge Pat Gamble granted an order stating that former refugees from Angola could apply to Gigaba to stay on in South Africa under the exemption section.

The due date for the application is on Wednesday, and Gigaba has until May 15 to reply.

For months, the Scalabrini Centre has been collecting and collating the applications, including from Boaventura and her brother, in 160 Lever Arch files. In total 80 000 pages will be handed over at Parliament.

“The applications range between eight and 300 pages. On average, we estimate the average application to be 40 pages long,” said Manicom.

“The 160 files we are submitting to DHA are effectively files of 2000 lives built in South Africa over the last twenty years.”

Each application will be considered separately.

The former refugees were asked to fill out a questionnaire, and provide bank statements, SARS certificates, employment contracts, a certified copy of a passport, and a police clearance certificate.

The department asked for “any documents illustrating family, cultural, social and economic ties to South Africa”. Applicants have penned long letters detailing their ties to this country.

Some have included employee awards, others neighbours’ support letters.  

Boaventura is hopeful her and her brother’s applications will be accepted and she will at last become a permanent resident in the country she calls home.  

Filipe, she said, wants to start his own accounting firm.

And her dream?

"Opening a chain of hotels so that we can be part of the entrepreneur force that is needed to drive our economy forward."

Read more on:    department of home affairs  |  malusi gigaba  |  angola  |  cape town  |  refugees

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