As South Africa commemorated Book Week, 07-13 September, a national campaign aimed at promoting a culture of reading amongst the country’s youth, UNHCR engaged some of its teenagers on the issue, xenophobia through a locally produced comic book, Reach Out! Speak Out!
The comic book is one of several educational tools developed and produced for a South African youth audience, usually at the forefront of the xenophobic violence in townships and disadvantaged communities. It is in these communities that refugees and other foreign nationals have established small scale businesses as a means of survival.
Seven years after the 2008 xenophobic violence played out on the world’s television screens, the issue resurfaced again, albeit on a smaller scale, in Johannesburg at the end of January 2015. It gained ground in the port city of Durban in February and peaked in March before the Government and law enforcement agencies gained the upper hand and reigned it in.
As the South African Government leads the national effort to counter xenophobia a series of community dialogues involving refugees, migrants and their South African hosts under the auspices of the Department of Arts and Culture and the Department of Social Development, followed.
UNHCR has also embarked on the offensive, providing support to Government led institutions in particular. The agency is currently co-facilitating workshops for national and provincial disaster management centres on coordination and management of displacement. At community level, it is supporting implementing partners with material to support social cohesion activities while also interacting with key audiences such as the youth.
“The youth are critical to participating in the conversation on xenophobia,” says Tina Ghelli, UNHCR Senior Regional External Relations Officer, “and we have made it our objective to work with this audience for as long as we have the means.”
As tomorrow’s leaders, South Africa’s reputation and standing on the continent and the rest of the world, rests on its shoulders. They have the responsibility to drive former President, Nelson Mandela’s vision for a democratic and humane society, well into the future.
“Through our involvement in the national effort to counter xenophobia, we hope to give them the tools and the information that explain the situations giving rise to refugees who have rights and obligations in their countries of asylum as well as South Africa’s international and domestic obligations toward them.”
To this end, the story in the comic book, Reach Out! Speak Out! is based on a fictional township community the youth audience can identify with. The plot takes the reader through a vindictive vendetta culminating in xenophobic violence. After appropriate legal and community based interventions through which the incident is roundly condemned, the reader turns the last page informed through age appropriate language, about refugees.
The publication is designed to independently inform and educate the reader but can also be used as a teaching aid in the classroom.
“By producing educational material locally, we are able to ensure that the finished product is relevant, topical and engaging for a youth audience across the country,” says Ghelli.
The importance of engaging and interacting with the youth audience cannot be underestimated.
During National Book Week, UNHCR engaged school children from Soweto, a sprawling township of over 1.3 million people, situated on the outskirts of the City of Johannesburg. Known for the Soweto Uprising of 16 June 1976 when mass protests erupted over the then apartheid government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English, Soweto is also known as one of the many locations in South Africa where xenophobic violence erupts time and again.
Conversation with school children revealed that the comic book, Reach Out! Speak Out!, as very relevant.
“It told me a lot about refugees and that the South African government through certain permits, allow them to live and work in the country,” says Mpho Nkosi. “I didn’t know that. I thought they were all illegally in South Africa. That is one of the reasons that made us angry with them.”
Ignorance, misinformation, frustration with an ailing economy and increasing unemployment, a potent mix that has oftentimes triggered xenophobic violence, with the youth at the forefront of looting and vandalism.
“What we take will help feed our families even if it’s for a short time,” says Nkosi, “however after reading the story, we know it is wrong but sometimes hunger outweighs what we know is not right or fair.”
The class’s candid remarks are representative of how what many of their peers think and do. Showing the consequences of these actions in the lives of the comic’s characters is an important component in turning the situation around.
Public education to counter xenophobia is required continuously however the lack of resources, both financial and human makes public outreach all the more challenging.
South Africa has approximately 112,000 recognised refugees and some 800,000 asylum seekers, who after receiving permits that allow them to work and study fan out and away from the congested cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, for peri-urban and rural areas to establish their livelihoods.
“We need to reach youth and adult South Africans in these locations as well with educational material before we see xenophobia take root and explode into violence targeting refugees and other foreign nationals, ” notes Ghelli.
To this end, UNHCR is producing a radio drama which will be disseminated and aired on community based radio stations nationwide, in 2016.
“The radio programme will include interactive engagement with the audience through questions and answers for which we will provide small cash and in-kind prized,” says Ghelli.
Community radio is a key component in efforts to counter xenophobia. In establishing partnerships with community radio stations nationwide, UNHCR aims to ensure mass and simultaneous coverage of messages to counter xenophobia and promote tolerance.
The challenge UNHCR realises, will be in maintaining a relationship with them even when the financial resources to nurture the support we need to ensure that refugees can continue living in peace and generating their livelihoods, are unavailable.
To address some of these problems, UNHCR has made overtures to some human rights non-governmental organisations to independently support the national effort to counter xenophobia.
“Many are willing to partner with us and with the material we are producing locally, we are able to provide them with the material they will need to reach locations physically, we on our limited budget, may not be able to,” says Ghelli, adding “as long as there is UNHCR branded educational material to counter xenophobia, we will ensure it reaches its audience one way or another.”
Pumla Rulashe in Soweto, Johannesburg.