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The latest news from the African Leadership Institute and its Fellows.

AFLI Fellows are leaders and change-makers, so this section has a lot of news. Please use the icons below if you want to sort posts by category, such as: regular news posts, video posts, audio posts, by tag, or by blogger. Additionally, all text in all of the posts is fully searchable.

A tribute to Ahmed Kathrada

A tribute to Ahmed Kathrada

Where do I even begin to describe how much you meant to me. Words fail to adequately describe my love, respect and admiration for you, my dearest K! Not only were you a man I deeply respected, a freedom fighter and iconic South African, but I had the privilege to call you my dearest friend. Thinking back, I cannot help but chuckle at how you insisted I drop the 'Uncle' nonsense, and just call you Kathy, because you loved that it made you feel much younger.

As I think back at the beautiful box of memories, moments and deep conversations shared with you, I am comforted by the time we got to spend together. I am comforted by the fact that your strength, conviction and bravery have left a great legacy and a lifetime of lessons for us all.

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In the Quest for Climate Justice, Who’s Left Out?

In the Quest for Climate Justice, Who’s Left Out?

When we talk about climate justice, the first thing that comes to mind is the plight of small island states, which contribute little to global warming but suffer its worst impacts. Or perhaps we think of climate-vulnerable countries like Pakistan, where millions are at risk of displacement due to severe floods. But with the latest installment of the UN climate talks underway in Marrakesh, don’t forget about the people of Western Sahara right next door.


 

Morocco has become a key player in international climate politics after assuming the Presidency of this year’s UN climate conference, known as COP22. It is troubling and ironic that such an important responsibility has been entrusted to a country that has repeatedly demonstrated its profound contempt for international law and the United Nations, and that remains a brutal occupying power. Lest anyone involved in international climate politics – journalists, diplomats, or civil society actors – forget: despite an opinion from the International Court of Justice in 1975 that Morocco has no valid claim to the territory of Western Sahara, Morocco has been illegally occupying the territory, located south of its southern border, for forty years. And in case anyone missed the news: when last year the UN Secretary-General had the temerity to refer to Morocco’s occupation as “an occupation”, Morocco responded, first, with massive street protests denouncing the Secretary-General (that were attended by Moroccan government officials), and subsequently by expelling all civilian personnel from MINURSO, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the territory. As the Secretary-General made clear, Morocco’s behaviour carries a serious risk of reigniting war in the region.

The history of the Western Sahara occupation is complex, but a good place to start is with “MINURSO” itself. The name stands for (in English) “the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.” The referendum in question was promised to the indigenous Saharawi people of Western Sahara in 1991, as part of a UN-brokered ceasefire that ended the war that they had fought with Morocco since its invasion in 1975 (after Spain, the prior colonial power, withdrew). In line with clear international norms for postcolonial transitions, the referendum will give the Saharawi people the option to become an independent nation. They remain the only former colony in Africa that has not been granted this fundamental right, and the African Union has repeatedly called on the UN to set a date for the referendum to occur. The Saharawi Republic is a full and founding member of the African Union, while Morocco is the only country on the continent which is not a member.

Since 1991, Saharawi refugees in Saharan Algeria have been waiting, in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable, for the referendum to be held. They have foresworn armed struggle and placed their trust in the UN, and in international law, to resolve the issue. In response, Morocco has repeatedly prevented the referendum from being held, flooded the Western Sahara with Moroccan settlers, and engaged in widely documented human rights abuses against indigenous Saharawi in the occupied territory.

The people of Western Sahara are some of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change. Increasingly common extreme weather events amplify the hardship posed by already inhospitable conditions. Last year, severe floods devastated the adobe structures of the refugee camps, destroying homes and displacing some 25,000 people. Meanwhile, Morocco is fast positioning itself as a global green energy pioneer. This is an important and admirable goal, but the fact that Morocco is actively granting new oil exploration contracts for foreign corporations to illegally drill on- and off-shore in Western Sahara throws its true intentions into question.

Already, some of Morocco’s renewable energy development is taking place in Western Sahara. Energy generated in Western Sahara – without the consent of its people – is exported back to Morocco. The royal palace regulates Morocco’s energy market and receives significant energy contracts in the occupied territory. This contravenes the UN’s legal opinion of 2002, which asserted that exploration and exploitation activities of the natural resources of Western Sahara could only be carried out in accordance with the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara. Morocco has not consulted the people of Western Sahara on its green energy projects in their territory, nor will the people of Western Sahara be the ones profiting from them. Quite simply: Morocco’s actions violate international law. Left unchecked, this will further entrench the occupation and damage the peace process.

The Saharawi have no interest in disrupting the essential and urgent international cooperation that is needed to deal with the climate crisis. But it is imperative that everyone involved in international climate politics understands that no country is less deserving of the honour and responsibility of guiding these crucial talks than Morocco: a country that has unilaterally expelled UN peacekeeping staff and repeatedly refused to abide by UN Security Council resolutions.

At COP22 in Marrakesh, the international community must not allow Morocco to sweep the injustices of Western Sahara under the rug. Responsible countries, journalists and members of civil society can use this opportunity to send the message that it does not condone Morocco’s behaviour. Only in the face of strong international pressure will Morocco begin acting as a responsible international partner with the UN. For a start by agreeing to return to direct negotiations with the Frente Polisario, the internationally recognized representative of the Saharawi people, towards holding a referendum as soon as possible.

As a climate activist, I've dedicated much of my life to the pursuit of a safe climate future for the world. The fight against climate change is the most important challenge of our time, but it must not be used as a smokescreen to mask injustices perpetrated against some of the world’s most marginalized people.

This essay by Catherine Constantinides was first published here on the African Leadership Institute site.  

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On Africa Day, a thought for the Saharawi, the forgotten people

On Africa Day, a thought for the Saharawi, the forgotten people

As we celebrate Africa month and honour a continent that has nurtured us, we embrace the rich diversity, culture and heritage that we share as a people of Africa. It is our responsibility to know our continent and understand her people. Our calling is to strive to maintain a liberated, united and prosperous Africa. In my quest to achieve these objectives I have had the privilege of learning about a people, a land and a forgotten story of our very own continent.


 

Everyday life happens, we go about our daily routine, and then as if from nowhere a story finds you, you don’t see it, you don’t expect it, but it’s there and it reshapes your perspective. A paradigm shift takes place and your view point is changed forever.

Six months ago I had no idea that a nation known as the Saharawi, and a country called the Western Sahara even existed, no less than on our own continent, Africa. I had no idea that there were human atrocities happening in North West Africa that in South Africa we know nothing of, it is not spoken of, and knowledge of this is very difficult to acquire.

The Western Sahara; commonly referred to as the last frontier of Africa, has been under the illegal occupation of Morocco, in accordance to international law. In 1963 the Western Sahara was added to the United Nations list of non-self governing territories and it was only in 1975 that the Western Sahara saw the departure of their coloniser Spain. The Spanish left and Madrid ceded control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania. Both countries claiming sovereignty over the territory this triggered an armed conflict with the Polisario Front, the liberation movement; that the UN considers as the legitimate representation of the Saharawi people. This conflict marked the beginning of a refugee crisis that has become an ongoing and forgotten conflict.  Africa can never, ever be free until those across our continent have their basic human rights, self determination and an opportunity to live freely!

Four decades have passed since the Saharawi refugee crisis began; today these people are still living in exile, while their families are back home, in the occupied territory, those that stayed behind are subjected to inhumane conditions. 40 years on, how do a people keep hope alive? This is a subject that is tabled and included on the agenda of the UN Security Council each year, this is as a result of the groundwork done by the African Union; yet generations later children are being born in a refugee camp, with no idea as to the world outside of the camps.

In 1975 the Saharawi were forced to flee their land and found refuge in south-west Algeria, with the expectation that one day they would return to their home. Traditionally a nomadic people, they have been forced to settle in an arid desert environment with no opportunity to be self-sufficient or productive. A camp set up in the midst of the desert, exposed to extreme heat that reaches 55’celcius, harsh sandstorms, constant drought and infrequent but hostile torrential rains.

These are a people that have been denied their home, their independence and their human rights! I know all of this now, because I had the opportunity to visit, learn and engage with these forgotten people. I was invited by the Saharawi Women Organization to join them at a refugee camp just outside Tindouf in Algeria, in a camp called Smara. There was much debate and discussion before my decision was made to embark on this journey. A journey, that would take me to a far corner of the African continent and would see me live with refugees, in refugee conditions. For seven days I committed to living with the exiled Saharawi, an urban being in the desert, with no running water, no electricity, no arable land, no food, no basics; I would get to come home after my time in the camp, but the families there would not go home, and they would not have something different tomorrow, they live day to day. They survive only on the basket of dried goods that is air-dropped every month by the World Food Programme (WFP). These people do not get to go home: this is the only home that they now know...

When this story found me, I was faced by many questions, where was this, what were the logistics involved, what were the security challenges, what were the health risks, the ultimate question, “Could people on our continent be living without the right of self governance, and self determination?” I was challenged to step from the known into the unknown, so as to see, hear and know what truth lay behind this story. I was compelled to seek information and to create an awareness of the human rights issue of the #SaharawiPeople.

I stand in solidarity with a people who have fought for 40 years to be independent and have the right to self determination and decolonisation. I now ask the question, “Are the Saharawi a forgotten people of the world, or is it just easier to turn a blind eye to an illegal occupation?” The total population of the Saharawi is approximately one million people. The Western Sahara is a land rich in mineral resources, oil, gold, the world’s largest deposits of phosphates and a rich fishing coastline to name but a few of the natural resources, these resources should be the right of the Saharawi people, this should be what they could have built their economy on, and yet they can-not go home and they live a meagre existence in a refugee camp.

It was 23h30, I had been travelling for 18 hours; the last flight had been by military plane into an army base two hours away from the refugee camps. No business class, no luggage conveyor, a cold, war like structure. A seasoned traveller, this was somewhat different; used to gliding through snow white clouds and blue skies. The military aircraft ploughed through the sky, with much noise and movement, there was a feeling of displacement in the air, my journey was happening. On arrival at the camps the darkness was intriguing. It was as if a thick blanket concealed the story I would uncover in the days ahead. My eyes began to adjust I could see these little tents peering through, dwellings scattered across a vastness of nothing, this was the desert. No markings or indication as to where we were, or where we were going.

Some of the tents and small structures had a gentle shine which I was told was the only light source which was emitted from a solar powered battery, candle light or a rechargeable lamp. The shadow of light carried an ambiance of hope and comfort. Bumedian, my new friend and expert desert driver, explained to me, “It is easier to drive at night as your bearings lie in the stars and constellations.” I was mesmerised by the light of the moon and the soft glow that fell across the camp that allowed me a glimpse of what I would see when day arrived.

The warm embrace of Shabba and Miriam, two sisters from the family that I stayed with, was overwhelming and emotional. Language was a huge barrier, as no English is spoken by the majority of Saharawi people, who all speak a dialect of Arabic, and a small group also speak French. We made our way into the family tent, where we were asked to leave our shoes outside. Mutha, an English student and the protocol officer, stayed with me.

         

As day broke, the tender sound of the Muazzin was heard across the camp, and the women of the family I stayed with started their first prayers for the day. Breakfast was a humble helping of dry bread, jam and milk coffee, there is no running water, long life milk is all that is available, and it is considered a luxury for those that do have it. I quickly learnt that water is very scarce and used for washing before prayers and refreshing rinses at the hottest times of the day. The basic routine of bathing in the morning, washing your teeth and other ‘daily rituals’ were somewhat of a luxury. This family had no toiletry bag filled with the items we take for granted, toothpaste and toothbrushes were not available.

I stepped out of the family tent, and was struck by the bright light and the vast naked desert. As far as my eye could see, in every direction, tiny dwellings and tents covered the landscape. I paused to get my bearings, as reality and shock started to become reality. Slowly the gentle laughter of children filled the crisp morning air and started to permeate the harsh reality that I could see around me. These children do not know anything other than this camp; they are playful, happy and content. The desert sand is their playground; nothing grows here, not a shrub, not a blade of grass and not a tree to be found, there is no vegetation of any kind. I quickly realised that there is no oasis in this desert. A ‘lilo’ like plastic is placed alongside each tent, which is filled with rationed water for each family; the water truck comes every few weeks. My family were insistent that I use as much water as I needed, but I humbly acknowledged that I would get to go home and I would leave these beautiful people here in the Sahara, still with no running water or electricity.

As I lay my head on the floor that night, I closed my eyes and I knew that tomorrow would never be the same, I would never be the same; I was a different person... I thought that poverty was what we had to fight, but this surpassed poverty, here there was nothing. I knew that I could not mistake the soft light, the amazing heavens, the smiles the children shared, their willingness to share love with me, did not mean that all was well. These are people that, 40 years on, still have a packed bag in their tent, so that when they are called, they will be ready to go home.

I ask that people support my call; support their call, to bring about international action, in order to bring about the change that the Saharawi people have been waiting for; they must be given their rights as a people.

A refugee camp is a place of loneliness and nothingness, yet one could easily be mistaken that the bright and colourful material worn by the women of the Western Sahara is what brings light and colour to this bare landscape. However, you would be sorely mistaken as the light in the camp comes from the power of the human spirit within these people. These people are proof that even under such harsh conditions, despite a lack of human rights and a call for action for them to return home, I could feel that #HopeLivesHere.

We need to stand against the existence of such; we need to demand the right of self determination, self governance and human rights for all people. It saddens my very fibre that people must wait for a monthly food basket composed of nine dry commodities; that never change, there is no variation, it always remains the same, and it is all that there is.

There is a will power, a strength of mind and a community built by the determination and strength of women who play the most crucial role in pushing this movement forward! The human spirit LIVES, it lives in these camps, in those tents and in the heart of all who pass through that place!

CATHERINE CONSTANTINIDES
@ChangeAgentSA

Catherine Constantinides is a 2013 Tutu Fellow.

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