FROM deposed presidents to high profile African dissidents, South Africa has over the years earned a reputation as a preferred destination for political refugees, despite an obvious discomfort with foreigners that has its roots in unfulfilled social obligations and which has sometimes tended to make for rather angry, and grumpy, locals.
Ousted Madagascar president Marc Ravalomanana, Haiti ex-president Jean-Betrand Aristide and veteran Uganda opposition leader Kizza Besigye are among those who have over the years called South Africa home, in addition to a clutch of high-value dissidents from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and all the way out to Nigeria.
Nelson Mandela’s lead at the Auckland Commonwealth heads summit in 1995 over the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and fellow Nigerian human rights activists was widely acknowledged as powerful, even leading to talk of a seat at a reformed UN Security Council, before this fizzled out over subsequent regional political considerations.
Many political refugees find South Africa’s cosmopolitan nature and better standards of living compared with many neighbours attractive, but a particular draw has been the fairly liberal, if overburdened, asylum system that does not immediately put them on the first flight home.
Some have genuine cases, but there are also some asylum applicants linked to unsavoury deeds that the country has admitted by virtue of its role as a regional diplomatic power.
Ravalomanana has been exiled in South Africa since 2009 when he was unseated in a military-backed coup. The former leader has a life sentence hanging over him for the deaths of protesters, and while supporters deemed it politically motivated, South African authorities were in 2012 sufficiently concerned to start an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity.
Aristide, from 2004 spent seven years in the country at government expense, South Africa having taken him in even as leading world powers such as the United States and France remained disinclined to the controversial leader.
Haiti’s status as the world’s first black-ruled republic was thought to have played a role in swaying Pretoria, but known strong ties with then-president Thabo Mbeki did not seem to harm his case.
South Africa’s refugee claim system is generally appreciated as one of the more functional ones on the continent, with would-be takers finding that the country does not take the extremely liberal interpretation of judicial ideals more likely with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa governments, and in some instances, even protects their rights.
On August 29 a South African court found four men guilty of a 2010 attempt on the life of exiled former general Kayumba Nyamwasa, the figurehead of a long list of Rwandan dissenters that have fled to the country.
In January this year, another Rwandan dissident, former spy chief Patrick Karegeya, was found dead in a plush Sandton hotel in Johannesburg that is a favourite of shadowy intelligence types, apparently strangled with a towel.
His killing precipitated a bad-tempered diplomatic fallout between South Africa and Rwanda, including the tit-for-tat expulsions of envoys.
The country’s asylum system is premised on a strong human rights system anchored in a progressive constitution. Due to this, an asylum seeker in South Africa is presumed to have a legitimate claim unless proven otherwise.
Other factors such as its liberation history also weigh in— many were persecuted and fled during the anti-apartheid struggle, informing the moral debate over the need to in turn protect those who would seek refuge within its borders.
But the verification system can be torturous, leading to a clogged pipeline that has seen the country at times refuse to take on new claims in defiance of court orders.
It is also a process that often gives rise to other dynamics that have a diplomatic import on relations with other African countries. Many of those refugees have gone on to form parties or give leadership momentum to other vehicles to power while waiting, giving new meaning to liberation struggles.
Uganda’s Besigye, who in 2001 sought asylum in South Africa after a failed presidential bid, supported the formation of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) before returning home four years later to lead the nascent opposition party into picking up close to a third of the votes.
Frank Ntwali, another Rwandan dissident who was in 2012 the subject of a stabbing attack in Johannesburg, heads the Africa arm of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition party that Karegeya helped to form.
Another attraction for refugees is that the odds of slipping through the creaking system are also higher, leading to scenarios such as those detailed by author Hussain Solomon in his book Of Myths and Migration: Illegal Immigration into South Africa .
He anecdotes how some four Mobutu Sese Seko-era generals sought refugee status in South Africa following the 1997 ouster of the Zaire leader, and as they awaited for the slow process of verification, proceeded to plan an armed movement that would be funded using the proceeds of stolen cobalt cash and which would push for secession of parts of the country.
By the time they were officially denied refugee status, they were long out of South Africa.
But while many South Africans are in no doubt that the enforcement of their domestic law could be improved, consensus over the interpretation of international law is not as easy to come across, and has at times led to diplomatic tensions with countries such as China, the DRC, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.
Wole Soyinka’s attempt to start a democratic movement against the regime of Nigeria military leader Sani Abacha out of South Africa was snuffed out by the South African government, following pressure from Abuja.
The Dalai Lama last week cancelled a trip to South Africa after he was reportedly denied a visa, a decision that commentators saw Beijing’s hand in.
The granting of an apparently fast-tracked refugee status to Nyamwasa—which is being challenged in court, has also raised eyebrows as he is also sought by Spain and France for war crimes linked to the 1994 genocide.
Pretoria is party to a raft of international treaties that would seemingly preclude the granting of such status to suspects of major crimes, including United Nations and EU conventions and the African Union’s Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism.
Rwanda and South Africa do not however currently have an extradition treaty, a situation that also applies to both Spain and France, even if a legal cooperation agreement with Paris is in place.
Interested parties such as the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa often question such glaring case exemptions, arguing they lock out genuine refugees.
In an irony of sorts, South Africa is a signatory to the Rome Statute, and often appears prepared to meet its obligations under the treaty. Due to this, African leaders like Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir have been careful to give the country a wide berth in their well-watched travels around the continent.
Contradictions however continue to exist—Pretoria has been criticised for its support of AU-sponsored resolutions for member states to defy indictments of sitting leaders.
But for all these varied scenarios, most political refugees on the run would happily take their chances in the Rainbow Nation.