South Africa has moral, legal obligation to compensate Ethiopians for losses in lives, properties & wellbeing

25 Apr


By Keffyalew Gebremedhin – The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

We read from news reports that South African leaders have been ashamed of the latest ‘xenophobic’ actions in that country. These relate to the barbaric actions of some of their irresponsible citizens against African immigrants that have been living in that country, most of them as refugees under the protection the state has offered them.

We have no reason to distrust their feelings of shame and anger, or the sense of helplessness and sting of bad conscience the majority of South Africans have been feeling since the onset of this ugly bout of anti-black sentiments.

South Africans protesting the attack on African immigrants (Credit: Fana)

South Africans protesting the attack on African immigrants (Credit: Fana)

On the other hand, in a news story on the BBC, Milton Nkosi sounds puzzled that the South African leadership seemed lost during the greater part of these horrible incidents. Even putting the army in the street took a long time. At the time of this writing, we did not hear South African leaders rebuking those who incited the infamous version of this ‘black on black’ actions that country has been getting the pangs of since 1993/94, luckily infrequently.

Irrespective of what is lurking in the background, the world seems to say that this latest round is an outcome of incitements by a tribal chieftain, especially the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. In the earlier cases, this madness was attributed to the work of renegade whites fighting to keep apartheid alive.

I recall suggesting on twitter on April 20 to South Africa as a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to see to it that the king is put on the dock. On April 23, I saw that a Nigerian human rights group has called the attention of the Court to the tragedy that has been taking place in South Africa.

Further, the BBC journalist Nkosi saw an ironic twist in President Jacob Zuma’s inaction. As if to remind him that he too, like many anti-apartheid activists, was beneficiary of other African countries’ hospitality while in exile that now has made him look like the solidarity lane from his end of the street is one way traffic.

Especially since the 1960s, Ethiopia had done everything with persistence this required and within its meagre means in its fight against apartheid, which President Zuma has been fully aware of. Emperor Haile Selassie engaged himself with full conviction to expose the apartheid regime’s impunity and crimes against humanity. At one point, it was reported that he instructed Ethiopian officials to take lead in challenging the apartheid regime at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), especially the legitimacy of its mandate on South West Africa, that is today’s Namibia.

Ethiopia also utilized the opportunities of its first membership in the United Nations Security Council in 1967-1968. With Lij Endalkachew Mekonnen as envoy, Ethiopia started working harder to facilitate isolation of the racist apartheid minority regime in world public opinion. Recall that for several decades apartheid South Africa was embraced, supported and protected mostly by Western states, while the socialist block and a few other nations had opposed apartheid.

Yes, even while fully armed to their teeth, dictators do not last for ever, since dictators lack the support base within the society. Certainly, the struggle against apartheid took longer and was also costly in lives and in human dignity.

History and Ethiopia met at right moments on the question of the struggle against apartheid, with Ethiopia again becoming a member of the Security Council in 1989-1990. This afforded Ethiopia the opportunity to fight apartheid from within the Council on the question of Namibia’s independence, a role I was privileged to be part of and close on hand to be part of the group that engineered from within the Council witness Namibia’s independence and the collapse by 1994 of the apartheid regime.

As an honorable person, Nelson Mandela acknowledges this in his autobiography (Long Walk to Freedom, 1994), referring Ethiopia as “the birthplace of African nationalism”. This is simply because of Ethiopian fierceness that through the ages has helped it safeguard its own independence and territorial integrity. That has been the story of Ethiopia, at least until recently, even in the age of brutal colonialism that was launched after the Berlin Conference of the 19th century and imperialist occupations of the twentieth century. That is why Ethiopia has not been a colonized country and wherever colonialism existed it has solid story of fiercely opposing it.

Emperor Haile Selassie offered Nelson Mandela a chance at military training, including chosen personal trainers under the leadership of Col Tadesse Biru in Ethiopia. This was intended to sharpen ANC struggle and help Black South Africans free their country. Mandela says in his book the six-month training program lasted only eight weeks, following ANC’s request because of the ‘armed struggle escalating.”

This effort on the part of Ethiopia was not limited to South Africans alone. But almost all Sub-Saharan African countries up until Zimbabwe’s independence in the early 1980s. They all have been beneficiaries, which Ethiopia had done out of its love of freedom and the principle that freedom and independence are human attributes.

As if that could not be translated into reality to today’s generation, Ethiopian immigrants in South Africa have of late been paid back with the most inhuman treatments; while human beings, they have been burnt alive, something which is not easy to understand, much less to explain.

To be honest, like most people around the world, I was angry at the slow and disinterested responses of the South African government. On account of that they have allowed the situation to worsen. Those most barbaric among human community, who committed these abominable actions may not even be force for food for South African society itself.

Fortunately, the situation now seems headed to being under control, following the deployment of the military into the troubled streets of South Africa’s towns and counties.

Why have Ethiopians fled to South Africa?

South Africa is not only a beautiful country. But also it is Africa’s richest and advanced country. From the vantage point of Ethiopia, the young hear about it and see it as distant heaven, an expanse of land stretching into the final southern tip of the continent that dips into the ocean.

While Ethiopia has today become heaven for the few nouveau riche, some of its political ethnic oligarchs with little or no education, who have learned to spend a weekend or celebrate birthdays in the Seychelles are now in power and things are different People are segmented on the basis of language and ethnicity, which Ethiopia is not that easy to force into. Thus, the majority of Ethiopians are lost and victims of state violence, while life for them means struggle to make ends meet.

Ethiopian youth could not take the deprivation of both freedoms and opportunities from their lives. At schools, pursuing education in peace or finding job opportunities is no longer the right path. Nor are hard work and excellence any longer key to success and a future one should aspire. Therefore, the option left is being forced to do what one does not like or believe in, i.e., becoming a political hack – only eventually to suffer the consequent compunction.

It has been evident already long ago that, the TPLF’s most terrible, cruel and illegitimate governance of the country has become the push factor for most of our youth to bolt out of Ethiopia. The TPLF badly mistreats our citizens and going through such situations or witnessing it is extremely painful for everyone. Briefly put, at the moment Ethiopians drink from the chalice of misfortune, which is not their choice.

That is why Ethiopians have are at the forefront of the astronomically rising global tide of immigrants leaving their countries. Some see the current situation as globalization that’s gone awry. Nonetheless, it is no exaggeration to state that there are Ethiopians in all parts of the world, including the small Pacific Island nations. The situation is so desperate that some even keep on running right at this moment into the Yemen under bombardment, according to UNHCR; some even move to Libya, after the extremist forces of ISIL slained their brethren.

This has been the misfortune of our nation in these past quarter century. Ethiopia has become curse to its children, like some animals in postpartum that turn against their offsprings and eat them.

Neither the economic growth propaganda in Ethiopia nor the distance between Ethiopia and South Africa have become deterrents to make our young immigrants sit put. Those Ethiopians, who have nothing else to turn to have chosen time and again to negotiate with all hardships they encounter on the road: illnesses, hunger, penalty for illegal entry into foreign countries especially in the cruel Horn nations, police robberies and beatings in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, bad prison conditions, diseases, etc., – all this to somehow reach South Africa.

The reality, however, is that just like those that drown every time in the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea or the Sinai Desert, many Ethiopians have also perished within the Eastern and Southern African corridors.

In spite of these endless saga of tribulations, ironically at this very moment, it is only the United States that sees the dictatorship in Ethiopia as “democartic” and capable of running elections that have been improving from time to titme, as Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman publicly iterated less than two weeks ago.

It hurts, when Ethiopians know that they must suffer, be persecuted and die to help the rest of the world live in peace, the local political and ethnic oligarchs and outsiders to enjoy the profits and fruits their country could offer!

Remains of an Ethiopian set ablze on fire in South Africa (Credit:

The possible remains of one of the Ethiopians set ablaze on fire in South Africa (Credit:


Compensation for the victims and their families

We have heard the contrition of South African officials, because of the unthinkable happening in that country – as they put it especially to Ethiopians. In the light of the gravity of the situation, and this present bout of attacks not being singular phenomenon, remorse and apologies can never be enough.

Under normal circumstances, there is moral side of such things, sense of solidarity and the normal exchange of friendships between human beings and the law too to making bad situation good through compensations.

Therefore, given that a poor country such as Ethiopia found it easier to stretch its hands to those Africans that were suffering under colonial occupation and apartheid in the case of South Africa, it is appropriate that Ethiopia should now expect South Africa – the second tier economic power of our region – to do the same for our destitute citizens in that live in their country. These are people likely to fall on harder times because of what the evil that came their way in their adopted homeland.

I have given this matter serious thought. And I strongly believe that the South African government needs to compensate all those who are still alive, families broken because of deaths, or disabilities and destructions of properties.

At least, South Africa is richer many times over than Ethiopia. We strongly believe, Ethiopians deserve the much-needed help more than any other nationals. We have no problems others benefitting from such arrangements. However, for most Ethiopians returning home is a terribly difficult proposition more than any other nation – because of Ethiopia’s governance and political problems.

As far as how and what level of compensation, I assume that South Africa probably has better organized system to have shopkeepers in that country being in the tax books. How much worth the affected refugees/residents could be estimated from there. Moreover, if there is goodwill, the bill would not be as hefty for that country.

After all, this is the way the law works, both in national and international contexts. Most importantly, it must be recognized that most of the victims are helpless individuals to initiate court cases against the Pretoria government or their individual counties. If one further looks and understands the situation in the country, for Ethiopians it is a forgone conclusion that the TPLF regime would not lift a finger to help them in any manner in this regard. The current approaches the TPLF seems to pretend about as engagement with South African government is the usual political propaganda for domestic consumption and also a swindling directed at the international community.

In other words, that is why I appeal in earnest to South Africa in the case of Ethiopia to understand their situation and take their case as its own. This would help those immigrants, who have been dispossessed of the little they have. Otherwise another grim future awaits them even psychologically, after they had settled down and thought they had managed to overcome lots of obstacles and hardships.

To my delight, I have heard President Mugabe fuming with anger about and contempt for the cruelties committed against his fellow countrymen. We remember that most of them left Zimbabwe as refugees in protest against his regime. However, he was among the first to arrange transportation for them and facilitate their return home.

Mugabe has also stood out as a sore finger, without the Southern African community solidarity weighing him down to lash out about South Africa’s leadership now business as usual attitude. He took it as his mission to expose the inhumanity the international community witnessed in South Africa, including the Pretoria regime’s inactions!

A better course for the return of the prodigal son

The South African leadership, the ANC in particular, should see that both goodwill gesture and compensating the victims is part of its own healing. This is, therefore, an opportunity for South Africa to seize to rise to the occasion and meet the grace the inhuman actions of its few citizens have deprived it.

The South African leadership must also be resolved to ensure that justice is served. Further avenues of healing must also be explored to help the immigrant community and to be protected in future from any such situation, since it had happened before.

While on this, I am in fact puzzled that the TPLF is telling Ethiopians that it has been talking with South African officials to get the South African government to provide special protection to Ethiopian immigrants. In fact, the news agency quotes the TPLF envoy Mulugetta Kelil saying special agreement would be signed between Ethiopia and South Africa shortly.

To be frank, this makes no sense; besides it is unprecedented. Does it mean that as a sovereign government South Africa is going to sign agreements with individual governments promising protection to respective immigrant citizens domiciled in its territory? Without such agreements, is this not supposed to be the role and mandate of a democratic government to have its rules and systems of crime prevention and punishment applied across the country and laid out clearly to citizens and alien residents, assuring them that they are all equally protected under the laws and the country’s security system?

I know that because of the special situation of Jews, special protections are being arranged at the moment even in some European countries. That is because of history and the situation in the Middle East. That example need not be considered better and effective in providing protection to immigrant residents or refugees under the protection of the South African government. The better it is if South Africa improves its security mechanisms and serious investigations of and control of the troubled areas.

These would not be enough. South Africa must improve the economic situation of blacks, including availing them training and employment opportunities.

The worst part of separate/bilateral protection agreements die down with change of government or in times of budgetary crisis. The better it is all citizens, legal residents and refugees enjoying state protection and that these fall under the normal mandates of the state, its constitution and existing institutional arrangements.

True, South Africa recently had problem with the long arms of Paul Kagame. His intelligence started killing dissidents within the territory of South Africa, I understood, he used the Rwandan embassy in in the country, which resulted in the expulsion of the diplomats, who used their embassy as staging ground for assassinations. Some lives were lost!

That is a different case however.


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