Opinion: SA refugee law threatens freedom of expression

Opinion: SA refugee law threatens freedom of expression

Many South Africans are dismayed by a new law that prohibits refugees from engaging in political activities related to their home countries.

In the 1960s, as apartheid repression intensified and the white South African government cracked down on all opposition, the leadership of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) set up headquarters in Lusaka, capital of independent Zambia.

Here the exiles were given a safer environment in which the movement could regroup, train new converts, plan military operations and plot South Africa’s path to freedom. A list of South Africans who passed through Lusaka over the years reads like a who’s who of the ANC, from independence talisman Oliver Tambo to future South African presidents Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki.

Given the crucial role of neighbouring African countries in enabling the ANC to wage the struggle for freedom, South Africans have a deep well of sympathy for those fleeing persecution and political repression abroad. While there have been challenges – including periodic outbreaks of shameful xenophobic violence – South Africa has generously played host to millions of Zimbabweans and other Africans looking for a better life.

Given this history of solidarity, many South Africans – and their guests – are dismayed by a new law that seeks to prevent refugees from engaging in political activities. The law, which took effect on 1 January, means that refugees who engage in political acts relating to their home nations could lose their asylum status. Those wishing to engage in such activities will have to seek the approval of the authorities. The motivation for this backwards move appears to be South Africa’s wish for smooth relations with fellow African states.  

“We need to know if it’s wrong and it’s going to cause war in the [home] country,” home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi told the country’s public broadcaster, SABC. “We need to warn them and say, ‘No, no, no, this will cause war with our neighbours, it’s not good for us.’”

A deeply regressive law

Such a move is deeply regressive, as well as impractical. Since the dawn of freedom, South Africa has been a beacon for free expression and association for people from all over the continent. Public meetings give voice to Africans who are denied their say at home. This open tradition has enriched South African democracy and led to improvements in governance across the continent. Refugee groups argue that the new law is unconstitutional and will seek to have it overturned.

But before protracted litigation begins, the authorities should reconsider. South Africa and its neighbours will be best served by a plain-speaking relationship based on honesty and a plurality of opinion – not an unrealistic wish for a life free of criticism. 

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