South Africa: Refugee Leader Accused of Misleading Protesters

analysis

A delegation trying to help refugees who have decamped from the UNHCR offices to a church in Cape Town has accused a refugee leader with a violent streak of assault and deceiving the protesters.

Jean-Pierre "JP" Balous is a confident man, yet trailed by violence. Most recently he has been accused of trying to gouge out the eyes of a man of the cloth at the Central Methodist Church in Cape Town.

Balous, a Congolese refugee, has been leading the protest and sit-in that started at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cape Town nearly two months ago, and has since moved to the Methodist church.

He has spoken unequivocally of the xenophobia that refugees and asylum seekers have faced in South Africa. Following the outbreak of xenophobic violence in Gauteng in early September, in which 12 people were killed, Balous seized the opportunity to stage an effective piece of political theatre.

He led a group of a few hundred refugees to stage the sit-in at the UNHCR offices, demanding to be resettled in another country.

During this time, he spoke repeatedly about the violent xenophobia to which refugees are subjected in South Africa. "What we are experiencing is not what a human being is supposed to experience," Balou told news agency GroundUp in the early days of the sit-in at the UNHCR offices in October.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) evicted the refugees and asylum seekers violently at the end of October and they have been staying at the Methodist church since then.

Aggressive response

On Friday 15 November, refugees attacked a delegation led by SAHRC commissioner Chris Nissen and Archbishop Thabo Makgoba at the church after they tried to brief the refugees on the options available to them aside from resettlement.

A number of people claimed that Balous was one of those who led the attack and apparently tried to gouge out the eyes of Pastor Moise Awilo, who was part of the delegation.

Awilo said after the delegation had briefed the refugees at the church, they realised how many didn't understand English. "They did not receive the message properly. When we tried to tell them in Swahili, many of them were surprised."

He said it was at this point that a number of refugees became aggressive and attacked the delegation. Nissen told News24 that an object thrown at him knocked him on the head and that he sprained a finger during the assault.

Awilo said many of the refugees with whom Balous had surrounded himself attacked him. "They started to beat me up, they hit me over the head with a piece of wood. On the corner where I went, they started beating me, hitting me, physically assaulting me. JP, he let everyone aside, so he can finish me. He tried to pluck my eyes out. That time, I could see him, and speak to him in Swahili, and he could just spit in my face and try and push my eyes."

He added that he didn't know where he got the strength, but he managed to push JP away and escape. A group of refugees who weren't in support of the assault assisted him out of the building.

'Many bruises'

In a video Awilo sent to members of the delegation and the Western Cape Refugee and Migrant Forum after the attack, blood can be seen running from his nose and over his lips. His eyes are wet with tears and visibly red.

"Hello guys, the situation is critical. We just left the church. JP and his guys tried to kill us," Awilo says in the video. "Thank God we made it out of the church, but with many bruises."

Awilo opened a case of assault against Balous at the Cape Town Central Police Station.

Balous vehemently denied assaulting anyone. "Those are the kind of accusations to try and discredit me and ruin my reputation. I will never do such things myself," he said.

But speaking to those who work with refugees and migrants in the Western Cape, what emerges is a portrait of a man with a history of lying and violence.

A number of refugee and migrant organisations in South Africa, including the Western Cape Refugee and Migrant Forum, have distanced themselves from Balous, his actions and statements.

"He keeps lying to [the refugees] staying with him, telling them they will be resettled to Canada [and] Australia. That was the motive from the beginning. That is the strategy he used to play off the vulnerability of people, to attract more people to go stay with him," said forum member Patrick Matenga.

Problems with authority

Matenga, a Congolese refugee, is the director of UniFam, an organisation that works closely with refugees in South Africa, helping them to integrate with local communities.

"He is really a very dangerous man. We believe a leader should protect his people. But if you are a leader and you are lying to the same people you are helping, it is very dangerous," he said.

Balous and his wife, Aline Bukuru, came to South Africa in 2006 as refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They and an organisation called Women and Children at Concern and have been involved with a number of organisations in Cape Town in various capacities. But what becomes clear is that Balous doesn't like his authority to be questioned, and becomes violent towards anyone who disagrees with him.

At least three people involved with helping refugees and migrants in the province have protection orders against Balous after he physically attacked them during past confrontations and disagreements.

Alidi Hicuburundi, a leader of the Burundian refugee community in South Africa, said Balous stabbed him in the face at a meeting on 15 November 2017 following a disagreement.

"I didn't say nothing to him," Hicuburundi said. "After the meeting, he started to insult me ... When I was out [of the meeting], I didn't know he was going to come fight with me. He just came to stab me in my mouth, now I am paralysed in my mouth."

The Cape Town magistrates' court granted Hicuburundi a protection order against Balous, preventing Balous from any physical, verbal or emotional harm, communication and no spreading of rumours on 22 February 2018.

Hicuburundi said he still feared for his life.

Intimidation and harassment

A Cape Town-based organisation that works closely with refugees and migrants also had a protection order granted against Balous earlier this year, after he allegedly intimidated and harassed staff.

The director of the organisation, who asked to remain anonymous, said Balous said the most "diabolical things on social media" about her staff. She declined to comment further on the matter.

Another man working with refugees and migrants confirmed that he had a dispute with Balous, but that it had been "amicably resolved". Part of the resolution included not being allowed to speak about the incident on or off the record.

Boutros Kabonga Tambwe, a refugee from Bukavu in the DRC and a member of the Western Cape Refugee and Migrant Forum, said Balous was "disqualified from" the forum following a number of fights with other members.

"He is being dishonest and trying to manipulate the innocent refugees and asylum seekers by lying to them that they will be resettled to Canada and America. It is something we understand is impossible for a group of people because resettlement is only possible for individuals who do the application.

"It is not even the UNHCR that decides who gets resettled, it is the country who is willing to receive some people, the one that is in a good position to decide. But him, he is manipulating people," Tambwe said.

Record of incidents

Matenga has kept a record of at least three incidents in which Balous attacked people in meetings with migrant and refugee organisations. The first incident was on 7 August 2017, the second on 3 October 2017 and the third in November 2017, when Hicuburundi was stabbed.

"For him, even you, if you are against what he is saying, he is going to attack you. He isn't afraid to attack anyone. I don't understand that behaviour," Matenga said.

"You know, the image of refugees, what we believe is that [a] refugee should not cause harm. Refugee is someone who escapes from the violence and is seeking a peaceful community. What we believe, we must also be part of [the] solution in our community. We must promote peace so that we live together in peace," he said.

"We can't allow to cause violence in the community when we seek peace in the community. He [Balous] is doing exactly the opposite. He is not helping the image of refugees."

Matenga, Tambwe, Hicuburundi and Awilo all claimed that Balous rules over the refugees living in the Methodist church with an iron fist, insisting that they ask his permission before talking to the media.

Balous denied this. "The only thing that is there is when the media comes, refugees first ask them to speak to us and then we allow them to speak to people! You can ask all media that comes here if we do not allow them to speak with people once they ask!" he responded in a text message about the claim.

Misinformation and disillusion

In mid-November, the protesters who jumped the perimeter fence to gain access to the UNHCR offices in Tshwane said the same thing. They insisted permission must first be granted from their leaders before they can speak to the media.

One of the leaders among the Tshwane group was Bukuru, Balous' wife. He confirmed that she travelled to Gauteng when the protests began and that they had been in constant communication since then.

However, when the SAPS went to evict protesters from the premises on Friday 15 November, Balous was unable to reach his wife. He has since made contact with her and said she somehow managed to evade arrest when the police arrested more than 180 of the protesters for trespassing.

New Frame spoke to three Congolese women who managed to leave the Methodist church recently, after growing disillusioned with Balous' actions and misinformation. The women, aged between 37 and 47, had been staying at the church with their husbands and children.

They agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because they fear retribution from Balous and those aligned with him.

One woman said she only realised three to four weeks into the protest that Balous was not being forthcoming about his motivation for staging the protest and what he was telling the protesters.

"In the beginning, he never said anything about going to another country. He said to us it was about jobs, papers, schools. Nothing about other countries. After that, he changed his story," she said.

'Nothing happens'

All three women said they had become disillusioned because Balous promised them that their papers and permits would be sorted within days, and he would assist them and their families with jobs and getting their children into schools.

"He said we must leave our house, our jobs. He said we can stay here [in the church]. Now it's like two months and nothing happens," another woman said.

Those who know Balous claim that he and his wife have unsuccessfully tried to be resettled to a third country on more than one occasion. They claim he used the latest spate of xenophobic attacks to try and mobilise support for their cause.

Balous said: "One of our sons, my wife's brother, who I raised myself, he was taken. They said they will take him, and afterwards come take us.

"It's not the first time [I've applied]. We were supposed to be resettled, but they first took our son, my wife's brother. He is in Washington [in the United States]. I wasn't able to go because they said there was still something pending and we have to wait and see what happens," he said.

The UNHCR said it was not permitted to discuss private resettlement cases.

'False hope'

The Refugee Solidarity Group, made up of a number of organisations, has condemned the recent violence by refugees. Group spokesperson Zackie Achmat said the refugee leaders issued "false statements" on what caused the violence.

"We believe that the protest leaders have sold false hope to hundreds of migrant women, children and men that they might be resettled by the UNHCR to a third country as a group," he said.

"Violence is tearing our society, communities, homes, schools and families apart. The DHA [Department of Home Affairs] has inflicted needless suffering on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. South African citizens and police have also inflicted unspeakable violence on this population. This is the context for the protesters' anger.

"But violence cannot be a solution. Violence delegitimises principled leadership and undermines legitimate issues. Refugees and asylum seekers across the country are in dire need of the rights afforded to them by our Constitution and protections under international law. The overwhelming majority of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants seek to build lives of dignity, peace and justice. We cannot judge the whole on the basis of this incident," Achmat said.

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