SA Cities of Refuge Project: Repaying South African Exiles’ Debt of Hospitality

15 Dec 2015
SA Cities of Refuge Project: Repaying South African Exiles’ Debt of Hospitality

Pictured: Fredrik Elg presenting on the SA Cities of Refuge Project at the ICORN-Pen International summit in Amsterdam in late May 2015.

By Michael Schmidt

The South African Cities of Refuge Project grew out of a meeting in Johannesburg in 2011 between Swedish cultural activist Fredrik Elg, South African actor Gerhard Rudolf, and myself, a South African journalist and free press activist. The animated dinner resulted in me in my capacity as Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ) being invited by Elg to attend the 2012 General Assembly of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), a network of cities and regions that had agreed to provide safe haven for persecuted journalists and writers.

The General Assembly occurs every two years and is a grand gathering of ICORN staff, Cities of Refuge officials, and of former and current “guest writers,” those who ICORN has assisted in securing the interim relief of two years’ sponsored exile in an ICORN host city. Applicants for guest writer status are vetted by PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee to ensure they are legitimate writers or journalists and that the nature of the threat against them is serious enough to warrant emergency exile. The profile of guest writers over the years has demonstrated that most have experienced the jackboot of repressive regimes, whether in Belarus, China, Iran, Syria, or elsewhere, but some are the victims of sub-state forces such as terrorists and criminal syndicates.

My experience in Stockholm in 2012 was transformative: there I spent most of the time sitting in as an observer in meetings held by the guest writers themselves, by agreement speaking in a non-voting capacity when I felt I had something to contribute. I had previously served for a decade over 1993-2003 as a shop steward of the old South African Union of Journalists (SAUJ), since defunct, and was the key founder of the entity that replaced it in 2010 on issues of journalism quality, working conditions and safety, the Professional Journalists’ Association of South Africa (ProJourn), a member of the Alliance of Language and Media Practitioners (LAMP), which I still today serve as administrative secretary. I have long been passionate about journalism safety, initiating the first journalism safety training in South Africa since 1994 in 2008, founding The Ulu Club for Southern African Conflict Journalists (now a ProJourn project), and devising for the IAJ a radical new modular journalism safety training programme.

But speaking with the ICORN guest writers escalated my concerns from a regional to an international level. Here were some of the brightest lights of their generations: all of them had been jailed; most of them had been tortured; and despite the terror that still clung to some of them, they all demonstrated the most remarkable spirit in extreme adversity. And instead of hiding out in the two years of exile provided for by ICORN – during which time they often have to make arrangements for an indeterminately long time in exile – most of them threw themselves into actively participating in the cultural and intellectual public life of their host cities. They impressed me no end, and to be honest I was a little jealous: I wanted some of that dynamic energy to root itself in South African soil, too!

On my return to South Africa, I began a series of discussions with the ICORN HQ in Stavanger, Norway, with Fredrik Elg of the ICORN city of refuge of Malmö in southern Sweden, and with Margie Orford of PEN SA about how to get South African cities on board the network. For one of the clearest heart’s desires expressed at Stockholm in 2012 by both guest writers and ICORN organisers was to broaden the network to include cities of the global south, both to broaden options, but also to lessen the culture shock of exiles thrown from developing countries’ cultures into first world cultures. So, with ICORN backing and PEN SA assistance, I launched the South African Cities of Refuge Project with the stated aim of getting the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg and the university towns of Stellenbosch and Grahamstown on board. The project’s foundational ethic is clear: this is a way for South Africans to repay the hospitality showed to our exiles abroad during the dark years of apartheid.

The project started to truly coalesce in 2014: firstly I attended the ICORN General Assembly in Ljubljana, Slovenia, at which I was pleased to meet prospective new ICORN city representatives from Colombia, Brazil and elsewhere and at which it was announced that as part of consolidating global initiatives on refuge, the network now also took on board persecuted musicians and visual artists. Secondly, project launches were held in Johannesburg, where at the AFDA film school campus in Milpark we screened Norwegian director Beate Arnestad’s documentary Silence or Exile about exiled Sri Lankan journalists, and in Cape Town where at the AFDA campus in Observatory we screened French director Marion Stalens’s documentary Silenced Voices about ICORN guest writers. The launches were supported respectively by the Royal Norwegian Embassy and by the French Institute in Southern Africa (IFAS).

The first traction was gained in Cape Town where officials of the City’s Arts & Culture Department, Zayd Minty and Robin Jutzen, met with Orford, myself, and two City of Malmö officials, Elg and Elisabeth Lundgren, in late 2014 and agreed in principle to donate the Goodwood Museum, a former house converted into a somewhat disused museum, as an ICORN guest writer residence; they kindly suggested the City pay for the museum’s reconversion back into a home, and pay its rates and service charges into the future.

In order to cement this relationship and make the guest writers’ capabilities clear to the City, in May this year, 2015, the ICORN City of Malmö and the project invited to Cape Town on tour two ICORN guest writers, leading Iranian feminist writer Parvin Ardalan and famous Arab Spring protest singer Ramy Essam of Egypt, along with Elg of Malmö and Elizabeth Dyvik of the ICORN HQ. The tour included successful meetings with Cape Town activists, with the City of Cape Town’s Arts & Culture Department including a site visit to the Goodwood Museum, with the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation on the convergence between their and our activism around migration and prejudice, with journalism students and lecturers at Stellenbosch University, and with Stellenbosch mayor Conrad Sidego. The tour also included bilaterals between Malmö and Cape Town on joint museum projects, and concluded with a free concert by Essam performing at The Armchair in Observatory with local musicians. We were warmly received wherever we went. ICORN’s report on the tour is here.

Elg presented on the project at the ICORN-PEN International summit in Amsterdam shortly afterwards. Although I have since left the IAJ, I remain committed to the project and later in the year, we presented a draft budgeted plan to the City of Cape Town’s Arts & Culture Department on the conversion of the Goodwood Museum that is now being discussed with the relevant authorities. I have now been invited to Malmö in December for the Safe Havens 2015 international human rights conference on providing refuge to persecuted journalists, academics and creatives where I will present on progress on the project and Minty can examine an ICORN city of refuge in operation. Wearing my ProJourn hat, I remain committed alongside PEN SA to making the project come alive, and if all goes well in our negotiations with potential funders, we hope that the City of Cape Town will be able to welcome its first ICORN guest writer this time next year.