Confronting uncertainty and responding to adversity: Mozambican war refugees in Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Published: 1/Juin/2004
Source: UNHCR Evaluation and Policy Unit


By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

During the 1980s, as a result of civil war in Mozambique, many people fled areas plagued by violence and headed for the relative safety of those that were still peaceful. Others headed for neighbouring countries where they hoped to find refuge. Of the latter, some opted for the Republic of South Africa, eventually self-settling in the Ka-Ngwane and Gazankulu Homelands among communities of fellow Shangaans. Selfsettlement was facilitated by the Apartheid government’s refusal to recognise them as refugees and accord them their due rights under international law, the UNHCR’s consequent inability to intervene, the Homeland government’s lack of capacity to encamp and look after them, and the availability of land for the purpose. Following the 1992 peace accord that ended the civil war, the UNHCR mounted a voluntary repatriation programme in 1994/95, under which those wishing to return to Mozambique were assisted to do so. The programme repatriated approximately 31,000 refugees, less than 10 per cent of the estimated total (Johnston, 1997). In 1996 the post-Apartheid government declared a limited amnesty for SADC citizens who had lived in the country continuously since at least July 1991, had no criminal record, and were either economically active or married to South Africans or had dependent children born and lawfully resident in the country [HRW, 1998]. The amnesty effectively ended the refugee status of the war-displaced. Many subsequently applied for and acquired South African citizenship and permanent resident status.

This paper is about a small group of the war-displaced.4 They live in an exclusive settlement, Maputo-sikomu, on the fringes of a remote village, Tiko5, in Ward 5 of Bohlabelo District in the semi-arid lowveld sub-region of Limpopo Province. As of June 2001, the village had 3842 residents, of whom 2881 were locally born South Africans and 961 Mozambican immigrants.6 The immigrants include the wardisplaced and labour migrants who left Mozambique before the war. Among the latter some had long settled in Tiko by the time the war-displaced arrived, and had no intention of returning to Mozambique. Others claimed to have intended to return but failed to do so because of the insecurity and the disruption caused by the war. Following retirement or retrenchment from their jobs, they had left the urban areas where they had spent their working lives and settled among the war-displaced in Maputo-sikomu. At the time of the fieldwork, the amnesty notwithstanding, many war-displaced were without legal status and, consequently, remained de jure illegal immigrants, though by virtue of having lived in the country for so long, had become de facto South Africans. Among them were those who, following declaration of the amnesty, had applied for permanent residence but had, for a variety of reasons, still not got the required documents. The paper describes the refugees’ response to the uncertainty created by the civil war and the brutality that accompanied it, their flight and settlement as new arrivals in South Africa, and the adversity they have faced and continue to face in efforts to rebuild their lives. The detailed background provides the context, important for understanding the process of decision-making prior to departure and the evolution of their situation over the last 15 or so years since they settled in Tiko. It shows the resourcefulness with which they have confronted both uncertainty and adversity and demonstrates the important role played by the social connections and networks they had in South Africa prior to their arrival. In line with research conducted elsewhere (Dick, 2002; Kibreab, 1993), it challenges the stereotypical view of refugees as dependent and parasitic on their host communities and contributes to the emerging discussion around the ‘development through local integration’ (DLI) and ‘relief versus development’ debates.

Download paper here.

Themes: Acquisition de la nationalité, Naturalisation et le mariage, Nationalité des réfugiés
Regions: Afrique australe, Mozambique
Year: 2004