In a disconcerting case of ethnic intolerance, on 14th February 2023 two male members of the ethnonym Banyamulenge community Richard Mukata (29) and Jean-Claude Sibomana (29), , are said to have been severly attacked at the embassy of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Arcadia, Pretoria, as reported by journalist Jonisayi Maromo of Independent Online (IOL) News on 21st February 2023. Maromo featured in his article the lobbying by the Non Profit Company (NPC) Not In My Name International (NMNI) for justice for the Banyamulenge community. NMNI released a public statement about this incident on 17th February 2023, titled No Love on Valetine’s Day. Such solidarity is also supported by the Non-Governmental Organisation(NGO) Turquoise Harmany Institute (THI), evident from its three concerts in 2019, 2020 and 2022 hosted for refugees. Based in Birdhaven, Johannesburg, THI aims to raise awareness about the plight of various people in Africa and around the world, forced to flee their home countries.
Coming back to Maromo’s article, he reported that the South African Police (SAPS) spokesperson in Gauteng, Lieutenant Colonel Mavela Masondo, stated that, “Police can confirm that a case of common assault was opened at Pretoria Central Police Station and an investigation is under way.” For comprehensive details, it is worth referring to two statements issued about this incident, on 17th and 18th February 2023, by the Executive Committee of the Banyamulenge Community, led by Chantal Mabeyi on behalf of this constituency, who are mostly refugees or asylum seekers in South Africa. The first statement was titled Condemnation of an Assault of our members inside the Congolese Embassy in Pretoria and the second statement - an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, was titled Condemnation of Ethnic Assault inside the Embassy of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Pretoria, South Africa. Given the grave dynamics of international relations at play, the open letter was also copied to South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) Naledi Pandor, Minister of Police Bheki Cele, Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi, and the offices of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). This open letter was also further sent to almost all the presidents of the African Great Lakes Region, beginning with President Etienne Tshisekedi (DRC), President Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), President Paul Kagame (Rwanda), President of Republic of Burundi and the current Chair of the East African Community Summit Evariste Ndayishimiye, former Prime Minister of Chad and now Chair of the African Union (AU) Commission Moussa Mahamat, President of Namibia and Chair of the South African Democratic Community (SADC) Hage Geingob, Secretary General of the United Nations (UN) Antonio Guterres and ambassadors of the following countries posted in their respective embassies in Pretoria South Africa - DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Angola, Ethiopia and the United States of America (USA).
From the statement of 18th February 2023, this recent attack was outlined as follows: ‘Two Banyamulenge men arrived at the DRC embassy to apply for their passports on 14th February 2023, at 14:15pm, and produced their identification documents (this was to prove that the pair were Congolese). After officials noticed the birthplace of the two men was Minembwe, located in the South Kivu Province of DRC, a verbal assault began, followed by the reported physical attack.’ The assailants are reported to have included both plenipotentiaries and civilian Congolese, who had also come to the embassy for their documentation. The verbal included remarks that these two Banyamulenge men were, “supposed to return to Rwanda because Minembwe is not Congo.” Both the statements of 17th and 18th February 2023 affirmed that a short clip which partly recorded the assault was available. The two victims reportedly survived the attack once the SAPS intervened and drove them to hospital. The same SAPS that witnessed and rescued the two victims, then refused to help them open a case against their assailants. The two victims thus only opened their case after returning from hospital.
To quote from the executive’s statement of 17th February 2023, basically, “this violent attack took place inside the embassy premises... they were attacked because of their ethnic affiliation - for simply being members of the Banyamulenge community, something to do with their physical traits.” Tellingly, the same statement further states that, “this is a second attack targeting [the Banyamulenge members] on similar basis, on our members at the Congolese embassy in South Africa, and despite our efforts to raise this issue with the Congolese embassy and South Africa’s DIRCO. The attack is among others targeting members of our community whenever they try to request services at the embassies. Similar incidents have occurred in Ethiopia, Belgium and unnoticed [other places]”. The Vice President of the Executive Committee of the Banyamulenge, Cleophas Nganire, confirmed to me that indeed another member of the Banyamulenge, Patrice Rutabara (34), suffered the same fate at the DRC embassy in 2015. Nganire informed me that the 2015 attack was raised with the Ambassador of the DRC, and DIRCO. The matter was closed in 2015 after officials in the DIRCO offices apologised and promised that such transgressions will not be repeated. What now, given the latest transgression? As a scholar of Africa’s International Relations (IR), although not surprised at ethnic intolerance (prevalent across Africa and beyond), I continue to be disappointed to observe that such incidents continue to take place, and the officials found to be involved are not held accountable. It is sad to concede that even in the wake of bilateral and multilateral agreements, countries claiming to be constitional democracies such as South Africa and the DRC, and multilateral organisations that are meant to serve as intermediaries such as SADC, the AU and the UN continue to fail to hold their plenipotentiaries accountable, as reflected by this latest saga at the DRC embassy in Pretoria.
The executive committee of the Banyamulenge mention that due to the contested history of their origins (which they project to pre-date DRC’s independence of 30th June 1960), their fellow Congolese dismiss them as Rwandese, Baryarwanda or Tutsi Rwandese. They are not considered as citizens but ‘foreigners’ in the DRC. Identity politics which have fuelled the miscellanious intra and inter border battles that have seen, among others, Banyamulenge militia charged, have contributed to killing sprees and fanned further hatred against them. Due to the politicised history and contested identity of the Banyamulenge, access to resources in DRC (e.g land in North and South DRC, where they settled as pastoralists) and their push for acceptance also exacerbates their victimisation.
For those who seek to undertstand the dynamics concerning the Banyamulenge people, the following may aid: an online platform called Mulenge Speaks and John Kapapi’s book published in 2019 titled Lies of the Tutsi in Eastern Congo/Zaire: A Case Study: South Kivu (pre-colonial to 2018); Lazare Rukundwa’s doctoral thesis at Pretoria University entitled Justice and Righteousness in Matthean Theology and its Relevance to the Banyamulenge Community (2006) and Rukumbuzi Delphin Ntanyama’s book Behind the Scenes of the Banyamulenge Military (2019). Also seek and engage sources of individuals/groups neither anti nor pro the Banyamelenge wishing to advance objective findings, such as Ugandan-born social scientist Mahmood Mamdani’s book When Victims Become Killers (2001). In closing, the Banyamulenge in South Africa are advised to fortify their alliance with non-governmental organisations such as NMNI and THI, in order to compel DIRCO to act.