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Features & Columns
by Michelle Randall

Love in a time of xenophobia

Feature

“They wouldn’t deal with foreigners.”
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United Nigerian Wives in South Africa (UNWISA) is a group of South African women married to Nigerian men who have formed a united opposition against the prejudice and hostility displayed by society towards them and their Nigerian husbands. What began as a handful of committed women in February 2013, UNWISA now has over 60 members across South Africa.

They aim to address issues of harassment and discrimination directed at their spouses by state authorities like the Department of Home Affairs and SAPS, and further the strides of freedom and justice so that all who legitimately live in South Africa enjoy equal treatment before the law.

The prejudices

Boiling from ordinary citizens and directed at non-South Africans, prejudices such as victimisation, extortion, and even name-calling have increased at an alarming rate, particularly since the outbreak of xenophobic attacks that took place between 2008 and 2009. Among the many reasons for the attacks at the time, one of them was that foreign men (specifically Nigerian men) were stealing South African women from their counterparts. Even South African women who are legally married to foreigners are not spared these prejudices, and are labelled as gold-diggers or prostitutes, while their Nigerian husbands are branded as drug dealers and fraudsters who also participate in human trafficking.

The ostracisation of these women often begins at home where their own families will question their wisdom and label them as ‘loose women’ for marrying a Nigerian. Unsurprisingly, these stereotypes have permeated into the Department of Home Affairs where members of UNWISA face the most discrimination. According to an article in The Mail&Guardian, home affairs officials accused Thelma Okoro of accepting money from Kenneth Sunday Okoro to marry him. The officials came to this conclusion during a routine marriage recognition interview, in which the couple had a minor dispute over the colour of their bed sheet. Kenneth said the sheet was red, but Thelma was more specific and said the sheet was rust-coloured. This inconsistency led the officials to believe that the Okoro’s had a fraudulent or 'paper marriage.' Furthermore, one of the officials allegedly threatened to deport "the dog" and detain the South African woman. He said this in the presence of the couple’s child. In a different incident, UNWISA leader Lindelwa Uche was at a human settlements office to apply for an RDP house where she was told, “they wouldn’t deal with foreigners.” Officials stated to her that if she wanted a house, she would have to divorce her Nigerian husband. It was an accumulation of scenes like these, compounded by the victimisation their children at public schools where they're labelled as 'Kwerekweres,' a derogatory term for foreigners that inspired Okoro, Uche, and a few other women to do something, and so UNWISA was established.

The struggle

At the start, UNWISA provided only sisterly support to advise and encourage one another about the discrimination they were facing in their daily lives. But as time went on, and more and more women came forward with stories of facing serious prejudice, particularly in their workplaces, UNWISA sought the help of professional counsellors. Their mission is to educate those who don’t know about Nigeria instead of fighting or defending themselves, and they do so by: accepting the stereotype; showing themselves to be God-fearing women who stand for truth and justice; openly and visibly condemning illegal and fraudulent activities; and by being actively involved in community projects that fight against crime, drugs and abuse. This mission further extends to the union's willingness to work with any organisation or government in an effort to unite Nigeria and South Africa. On 22 March 2013, UNWISA marched to the Department of Home Affairs in Johannesburg and handed over a memorandum decrying the delayed and often outright refusal by officials to issue residence permits for their spouses.

They also highlighted discrimination against South African women married to Nigerians, their husbands, and children, by Home Affairs officials. In December 2013, UNWISA held a charity event at the Usindiso Ministries Shelter for Women and Children in Johannesburg and donated educational items, clothing, food and sanitary products. On 27 April 2014, UNWISA organised a Visibility March in Johannesburg to create awareness of the dangers of drug trade and drug abuse. On 17 May 2014, UNWISA joined the African National Congress Women's League (ANCWL) to build solidarity with the government and people of Nigeria against Boko Haram, and to join the efforts of progressive forces to 'Bring Back Our Girls Safely.'

The future

UNWISA hopes to establish a Skill Acquisition Centre with programmes to assist unskilled and stranded male migrants and citizens to acquire skills such as building, painting, bricklaying, plumbing, panel beating, and auto-mechanics. This will not only make them employable and economically relevant, but also will keep them away from crime. Similarly, young women will be equipped with skills in catering, beauty therapy, interior decoration, hairdressing, and knitting. UNWISA is open to all women married to Nigerian citizens residing in South Africa. To connect with UNWISA visit their Facebook page and do your part to fight xenophobic tendencies!

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