Jozi City Feature

No place of safety in the city

When Sophia Kabongo* heard about new threats of xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg a familiar feeling returned to her. The same feeling she had when she was in the camps in Malawi after leaving her home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I [thought] where can I go again? Where can I [re]start my life again? I’m living here [with] my children, my husband and my brother. Maybe they’re going to kill three people again, maybe they’re going to kill me. I ask myself many questions that day. I ask my husband and my brother ‘What [can] we do?’ They say ‘Nothing … Nothing’. Life,” she sighs.


Sophie Kabongo is a pseudonym. She did not want her identity to be revealed out of fear for her safety. Kabongo’s family fled their home in 2005 and have lived in South Africa since. She is not in contact with anyone back in the DRC and says that she prefers it that way, for her family’s safety. Although she does miss her parents and siblings. The pictures in this article are used to illustrate Kabongo’s story.


According to the African Centre for Migration and Societies (ACMS) at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg is home to almost 470 000 forced migrants. Of these, 51 300 are legally recognised refugees and 417 700 are asylum seekers and others in “refugee-like circumstances”.

Sitting on a black plastic chair with her arms folded, Kabonga’s eyes are downcast, her head is slightly tilted to her right, and she gently rocks forwards and backwards in her seat. She is part of Umoja 2, a group of women who have had traumatic experiences in their lives.

They gather to share their stories and help each other heal, with the help of Johanna Kistner, executive director of the Sophiatown Community Psychological Service, and her staff.

“I think it’s a myth that people come from a dangerous place, go through a perilous journey and get to a safe haven here,” Kistner says. “It is all a perilous journey of impermanence against a landscape of suffering.”

Kabongo and her family arrived in Johannesburg in 2005 and have since made a home for themselves in Bertrams, a few streets away from the counselling centre. She has four children – a boy of 12 and three girls aged 11, 10 and 9. The family of six lives in one room in a three-bedroom house. A curtain separates the children’s side from the parents.

Her eldest child and only son wants to be a judge when he grows up, she says with a smile on her face as she tells his reason for this.

“He says ‘Mama, because those people did those bad things to us, I will be a judge [so I can] go back to my country to judge them’.” She chuckles as she also remembers what her last born said to her: “Mama I will just go to them and [tell them] I am a police [officer] because I am suffering a lot mama.” She laughs as she thinks about her children’s dreams.


Her 11-year-old daughter, and our translator, says she wants to be a doctor.

Kabongo’s children are all in primary school now; they can all speak English, French and Swahili.

Although they left a lifestyle she describes as middle class back home in Bukavu, in the east of the DRC, she says the children no longer complain about not having their own house and their own rooms. They know why they now live here and why they had to leave.

She says her son would often ask her what the reason behind the scar between his eyes was when he was younger; she eventually told him the story when he was in grade five.

“And that day he said ‘Mama I can’t go back to that country, that place is not my country. I can’t go back because they want to kill us.’”

She says that at times when she would get angry and frustrated and say, “Ah, I want to go to my country, I’m suffering [here,]” her children would tell her, “Mama you must leave us in a shelter, they are going to kill you [there]”.

Kabongo was raped by rebel soldiers in front of her children after her husband had fled their home fearing for his life.

“That day when their father ran away [from the rebels] in 2002, they came to fetch my husband and I told them he’s not around. Then they raped me, and during that time my children started crying and [one of the men] put a knife (she gestures with her hand diagonally between her eyes) on my son’s face.”

Bukavu, and eastern Congo in general, is known as one of the most dangerous places in the world for women. According to the !enough campaign’s website, Raise Hope for Congo: “Women in the Congo are often treated as little more than private property” and rape is “used as a weapon to force communities to flee their homes”.

Some of the methods used to rape women include using a gun, a wooden stick, beer bottle tops and sometimes shooting into the women’s vaginas says Emily*, a group facilitator at the counselling centre. She also comes from eastern Congo.


Kabongo says her husband was being hunted by the rebels because he had taken an incriminating photograph of a house that was bombed with families locked inside.

“[The rebels] would trick you and tell you they wanted to keep you safe, that you must sit in a house and that they will give you shelter and food. But then when they got about eight families inside that house they [would] close all the doors and throw a grenade into that house. That is how they would disguise the number of people they [had] killed.”

Reluctantly retelling the story of how she and her family fled their hometown, Kabongo describes the atrocities she witnessed and the number of people she saw dying, still embedded in her memory.

“By the time we left [the rebel soldiers] were getting tired of killing people so they usually stabbed you in the shoulder, by your neck and would let you haemorrhage and they usually threw you in the hole [created as a long drop toilet system]. Some were thrown in there even while they were alive.”

Fear was a constant reality even when she reached the camps in Malawi. She remembers seeing the same culprits who had committed the crimes in her town, in the same camps that she was in: “The same people were in the camps”. She says she overheard people saying “the only safe place is South Africa so let’s run away to South Africa”.



Kabongo’s trip to Johannesburg was a two-week journey from Bukavu through Burundi into Malawi where she was psychologically treated for the trauma she experienced after being raped. She then left the camps and entered Mozambique. From there she went to Zimbabwe in a truck, crossed the border into South Africa and arrived by train in Johannesburg. All this with her children by her side.

There are many different reasons people come to Johannesburg. Many of Johannesburg’s inner city residents are immigrants from outside the country, mainly from other parts of Africa as well as some international immigrants.

There are four main factors in why people migrate. These are: environmental (when natural disasters occur and cause displacement), political (if there’s a war in their home country), economic (if they migrate to work) and cultural (for religious freedom and education).

Kabongo is considered a political migrant.

There have been simmering threats of another xenophobic outburst in Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg. This time there are frustrations from Alexandra residents towards foreign immigrants who are renting RDP houses intended for previously disadvantaged South Africans. Posters such as “Go home or die here” have been put up in the areas to intimidate immigrants to leave the houses and “return to where they came from”.

Kabongo says the xenophobic violence that erupted in 2008, three years after her arrival in the city, and the potential threat of another attack on foreign immigrants have left her uncertain about where she will run to next.

“When someone tells me to go back home to where I come from, that person doesn’t want me to live,” she says.

The ACMS also states the cause of xenophobic violence as a combination of high immigration into Johannesburg and high unemployment among South Africans and illegal immigrants.

Kabongo has had to live life on a minimal budget here in the city, literally living “from hand to mouth”. She recently got a job as a nanny for a single mother who lives in Judith’s Paarl, an eight-minute walk from where Kabongo stays.

“I work from six [in the morning] until three [in the afternoon], so I leave my house early in the morning.”



After high school, Kabongo studied and qualified as a French teacher in the DRC, but says she is unable to get a job teaching French because South Africa is not a francophone state and no one speaks the language here.

She praises South Africa’s stance on education. All her children attend school, whether she can afford it or not. She says sometimes she is exempted from having to pay their fees but sometimes she is not. But either way her children regularly attend school.

“I like that education [is important for] South Africa. It’s nice I like it. Because back in my country if you don’t have money you can’t go to school.”

Other reasons for migration into the inner city is for opportunities unavailable to them back home.

Twenty-three-year-old Eton Essai from Mozambique is a street vendor – he sells fruits, snacks and cigarettes. He is from Chokwe, 160km from the country’s capital, Maputo. He has lived in the city for eight months and came here to find work.

“[I] came here not knowing anyone; it took R250 to come here. You sleep in the taxi, you eat in the taxi and then you get to Jo’burg.”

He left his wife and 3-year-old child back home with his mother. “I don’t like anything about Jozi. I just want money.”


So too does Senegalese tailor, Assane Sow.

Fifty-four-year-old Sow is from Dakar, Senegal’s capital, and has lived in Johannesburg since December 1994. He is married to a South African and is a South African citizen.

Sow says he found out about the city from other Senegalese men who would return home to see their families. He soon joined them, working as a tailor. His flight down cost him R7 000 at that time, but says nowadays it’s about R10 000 and something.

“Every time I get money I have to go home. I can’t live here with my money. If I got a million rand today I would go home now.”

Pointing to a building from the window of his sixth-floor corner office, he says: “There’s a building full of foreigners. Foreigners pay rent. Foreigners here can open their own businesses because the South Africans don’t have work, so they can’t pay us. That is why [we] do [our] own thing. Everywhere you go [in the world], the capital of business, you need foreigners there,” he says.

Twenty-five-year-old Zimbabwean, Tino Maputiri from Chipinge, a village about one hour away from Harare, arrived here in August 2011. His trip cost him R300.

He took a taxi from his home town to the border, got off and says, along with the other passengers, crossed the Limpopo River and walked for a couple of metres before reaching another taxi which brought them straight to the city.

An orphan, a married man and a father, Maputiri came to the city to look for employment after struggling in his home country. He works at a bottle store loading crates into and out of the shop’s storage. He tries to send R500 home every month.



Ethiopian-born Tim, who prefers her full name not to be used, owns a clothing shop on Jeppe Street and says she has been living here since 2002.

She and her husband came to the city to further their studies. She says while she was still in Ethopia she would hear about South Africa and how it was one of the best African countries. She says the trip here has almost doubled in cost.

She says she does not intend going back to her home country, because “we have two kids and they [were] born here. They are South African.”

* Not her real name

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About Mpho Raborife

Mpho Raborife is a Rhodes University graduate. She majored in Philosophy and Journalism & Media studies. She has completed her honours in Journalism at the University of Witwatersrand. She is interested in international affairs and politics, but also enjoys magazine features. She has had two article published in the Mail & Guardian and aspires to go learn more about the broadcasting industry. Mpho is from Dobsonville, Soweto and enjoys reading and reporting on various beats but enjoys reporting hard news. Her ultimate goal is to become a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.

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