When he fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2010, hoping to start a new life away from the people baying for his blood, Junior Mayema did not expect the anguish and terror that was to befall him. Discrimination in Cape Town was only the beginning. Within months of his arrival, a police officer attempted to rape him, and he suffered a brutal homophobic attack.
Mayema, 25, grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and sought refuge in South Africa. Although neither country is one of the 76-plus around the world with laws against homosexual activity, both are inhospitable to LGBT people.
“I arrived in South Africa in January 2010. The situation in my country was terrible. I was under threat from both family and society. I fled. I had read about South Africa having the best constitution protecting LGBT rights and I [thought]I would be safe here,” he told 429Magazine.
And it got worse. Mayema had landed in a country both homophobic and xenophobic, making his life in South Africa difficult.
“When I arrived at the Capetown refugee camp, I got the shock of my life as reality sank in. I was treated badly. The officers were discriminatory. They made fun of my case, arguing that they did not know gay people existed in DRC,” he said.
His application for asylum on the basis of his sexual orientation was ignored.
“The authorities only gave me a temporary permit that I have to extend every three or six months. If I fail to renew it, I will be deported back to danger in DRC. The argument for giving me a three-month permit is that being LGBT is not a special ground for one to get refugee status,” he said.
“I did not get financial or any other support besides accommodation at the camps, where there is homophobia and discrimination from officers and other refugees.”
He says the situation is especially hard for transgender refugees, who face difficulties both when they seek employment and when they register at the home office.
The home Affairs office deals with issues of Administering admissions into the country, Determining the residency status of foreigners and issuing permits thereof and Custodianship of refugee affairs.
“I am a gender non-conforming person although currently I am still in the process of transitioning. I prefer being identified as gay. However I feel for my fellow transgender friends who, whenever they have to go to home office, are struck by harsh reality.”
At the Home Affairs office in Cape Town, where refugees go to get their renewals for permission to stay in the country or for any issues related to assylum cases there are queues for men and women. This, Mayema claims, causes issues for transgender people – especially those in transition – as they are forced to choose one or the other and may invite harassment in doing so.
But even more than the administrative issues, Mayema is most concerned that he has not been able to continue attending school.
“I was studying law in the DRC. I didn’t finish my studies. When I fled the country I was in my second year. In as much as I want to pursue my studies here, I am finding it very difficult. It’s worse even to establish one’s self because I only have a short-stay permit, meaning my life has been on hold for the last three years.”
When a police officer attempted to rape him in a bar’s bathroom, he reported it to the police.
“I reported the matter to the police that an officer had attempted to rape me. They made fun of me because I was the gay one and they did not do anything about the case. Instead they made homophobic remarks,” he said.
Other foreign nationals who are in Cape Town have also compounded the situation.
“The Congolese people here are the most homophobic,” he said. “They say I am a disgrace to the DRC. I have also heard other LGBT refugees complain that they are treated badly by people from their home countries here as well.”
Finding a suitable place to live has also been difficult, because landlords are often strict and anti-gay.
“When my landlord learned that I was gay,” Mayema said, “he gave me an ultimatum — either only female visitors or I leave his place.”
Mayema has found comfort in volunteering with a local LGBT organization called People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), which fights for the rights of asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants in South Africa.
“This work helps empower me to help myself and others,” he said.
On April 27th, South Africa marked the 19th anniversary of its first post-apartheid elections, but the country still has a long way to go to realize the words of its inspirational leader, Nelson Mandela: “To be free is not only merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.