A virtual joint committee meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs, and the Select Committee on Security and Justice, was held yesterday to assess the status of refugees in the Cape Town Central Business District (CBD), service rendered and the status of the ports of entry in the country. 

The Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs, Adv Bongani Bongo, made a collective remark before the meeting got under way. He emphasised that both committees “commend the sterling response sanctioned by the state to deal with Covid-19. These meetings ensure that the executive is held accountable”.

He also thanked Parliament “for its resumption of its work in these trying times to ensure that it continues to play its oversight role, in accordance with its constitutional mandate”.

The department’s presentation was initiated by its Acting Director-General, Mr Jackie Mackay. He started off by explaining the scope of the work of the department during this period. “Currently, the work of the department is confined to the issuing of death, birth, and temporary ID services”.

Of significance in his presentation, was how the department interacted with the citizens of this country, and how it safeguarded its staff against the pandemic. Within the department, “virtual meetings have and continue to be conducted to ensure the smooth running of the department’s work and as a means to safeguard the health of its staff”.

The department reported on the Vryheid incident and said the staff self-isolated itself and has since tested negative. Furthermore, “the staff in that office was treated for anxiety. The office has since reopened and is functioning as expected”.  

In addition to that, he interjected: “Covid-19 committees have been initiated in the department to have a standardised approach when it comes to the procurement of masks and gloves to safeguard the well-being of the department’s personnel.”

Of concern to the members of both committees, was the safety of Home Affairs staff given the imminent increase in their work, with regard the announcement of the social stimulus by the President. 

Mr Mackay announced that to date, R20 million has been set aside to be spent on personal protective equipment (PPE) for the safety of the department’s staff. Procurement was “done according to the procurement thresholds as per the National Treasury Procurement Notes which get revised as the effect of the pandemic prolongs”, he said.

Deputy Minister, Mr Njabulo Ndzuza, told the committees that the department’s focus was on rendering critical services such as death registration, temporary IDs and the issuing of birth certificates. In addition to that, the recent social stimulus announced by the President would create a backlog for the department. In light of this, the department has called on South African citizens to collect their smart cards from the department. They will be “needed for the issuing of the social grants meant to alleviate the difficulties caused by the pandemic”. he said.

The Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, gave the outline of the responsibilities of the Home Affairs Department which are often conflated with the responsibilities of other departments. This was meant to clear its responsibility during its response to Covid-19. “We often get queries from the media about responsibilities that don’t belong to the department,” said the Minister.

He said this is because most people don’t understand the jurisdiction of Home Affairs. “I am doing this to set the record straights that we demarcate ports, but the approval of goods is a responsibility of SARS and the SAPS.”

He added: “The screening of those coming into the country is a responsibility of the Health Department. The SANDF has the responsibility of the border fence, while Public Works is responsible for fencing it.”  

The Minister then went on to address the ongoing concern of the state and future of refugees in the Central Business District of Cape Town. The Minister stated that the department’s response in this regard is limited to ensuring that “there is an observance of refugees’ rights. But as to where they should be, is the responsibility of other related departments, not the Home Affairs Department, he said.

Still on the refugee’s issue, a member of one of the committees stated that there was an agreement that refugees should either be reintegrated to their previous communities, or be sent back to their countries of origin. It seems the first option failed, why the department has not deported the refugees? The Minister replied that “no repatriation can take place during lockdown. That would risk the safety of the department’s staff and that will be against the lockdown rules and regulations”.  

The members of committees also expressed their concern about the lack of security at our borders and the fear of the flooding of foreign nationals who would want to cross the border to benefit from the social stimulus recently announced by the President as a response to the social strain bought to bear by the lockdown.

The issue of safety in the Wingfield refugee camp in the Western Cape was also under spotlight, because there are reports from some members of the committees that there is no mass screening conducted at the camp. And there are no people wearing gloves or masks and people are congregating in groups. The lockdown regulations are obviously not applied there.  

Did any governments offer to repatriate their nationals, one of the members of the committee asked? The Minister replied that they did: “The Ambassadors of Burundi and Congo have committed to help if their nationals were to be repatriated. If repatriation takes place these countries are willing to help with the process.”

The issue of Cape Town refugees is now a going concern, both committees resolved that it needs an urgent attention to safeguard the rights of refugees on one the hand, and of ensuring that they are given the necessary personal protective equipment to protect them against the pandemic. And they are of the view that Home Affairs would play a critical or proxy role in this regard in one way or the other, as part of the government’s concerted cluster approach to the matter.       

By Abel Mputing

29 April 2020