The Paper Trail: Note by Ivan Vladislavic
The Ponte evictions began in mid-2007 and went on into the following year. When Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse first visited the block early in 2008, they found that the vacated flats had been ransacked. Among the broken furniture and abandoned possessions, carelessly scattered and trampled underfoot, they found an extraordinary array of papers: identity documents, CVs, certificates, time sheets, affidavits, refugee visa application forms, hospital reports, drafts of letters on pages torn from exercise books, rental statements, notebooks, photographs, posters, maps. It was only after many visits, in the winter months of 2008, that they began to collect and preserve these documents.
This paper trail shows that there were at least two people living in Flat 3607: Jerome Matondo Kabangu and Promise Ilunga Kinkela. * Most of the papers belonged to Kabangu.
Kabangu was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1981 and grew up on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. As he tells it, his life was disrupted by the war in the late 1990s, with the murder of his father and the persecution of his family. After hiding in the bush for some time, he made his way to Lubumbashi, where he finished his schooling in 2001 and also did a diploma in pharmacology. To avoid being forced into the army, he joined up with some cousins, including Kinkela, and fled the country. They went from Manono to Pweto, and then across the border into Zambia, where they received help at the Roman Catholic mission. After ten days, they crossed into Zimbabwe and went straight on to South Africa, entering the country illegally in April 2003.
Like many migrants before and since, they headed for Johannesburg. The city has always been a magnet for people who want to make a new start. There is usually work to be had and you can put a roof over your head. But it is not easy, as the new arrivalsalso discover. Johannesburg has a way of chewing people up and spitting them out.
For the first few years, Kabangu lived in a flat in Olivia Road, before moving a few blocks away to Flat 3607 in Ponte. He found work in a Wimpy and trained as a waiter and bartender at a hotel school in Bree Street. In the CV that reflects this qualification, he described himself as a presentable, clean-living and punctual young man: ‘I am honest and reliable, and get on well with my Fellowmen.’ Later he received a certificate from the Yebo Nonke Security Services and Training Academy and became a security guard.
In one of many statements about his arrival in South Africa, Kabangu says he acquired refugee status within weeks. The abandoned documents show that the Department of Home Affairs granted a request for asylum in 2005, issuing him with a certificate of exemption that would have to be renewed upon expiry. He later received a refugee ID document.
Kabangu never seems to have settled down in his new home. In June 2003, within months of arriving in Johannesburg, he filled out an application form for permanent residence in Canada, in which he described the circumstances that had turned him into a refugee. If this application was ever submitted, it must have been rejected. In July the following year, he filled out an application for an Australian offshore humanitarian visa, presumably with the same negative result.
In September 2006, Kabangu was working as a security guard at a complex in Honeydew. When he refused access to a white couple who had no business in the complex, the man began to hurl racial abuse at him. Incensed by the guard’s smiling response, the man drew a gun and fired a shot, which missed. Kabangu laid a charge of attempted murder at the Honeydew Police Station and filled out an official complaint form addressed to the South African Human Rights Commission. A follow-up letter from the Commission shows that he submitted the complaint, but he may not have taken the matter further. Around the same time, he wrote to the commander of the Honeydew Police Station to thank him for his handling of the case, which had led to the arrest of the accused.
Promise Ilunga Kinkela lived sometimes in Flat 3607 and some- times in another flat along the corridor. He seems to have been Kabangu’s cousin and to have followed the same route into South Africa. He certainly tried to cut the same paths out of the country, although at different times. In January 2004, his application for migration to Australia as a refugee was rejected by the High Commission in Pretoria. As late as November 2006, a letter on the subject of the immigration medical examination shows that he was trying to get to Canada.
The stories scattered among the papers left in Flat 3607 are fragmentary and uncertain. Kabangu and Kinkela filled out various application forms, but there is no sign that they were ever submitted. To complicate things, the forms of the two cousins are jumbled together with those of several other relatives, all offering similar answers to certain questions. Disentangling the applicants provides little assurance: these are people desperate to prove that they are deserving of refugee status or humanitarian assistance. Reconstructing their stories accurately and checking their veracity would be a complex task for an historian or a psychologist – perhaps even a detective – and is far beyond the scope of this note.
At a glance, however, the papers reveal some fascinating things. One of the most striking is the instability of Jerome Matondo Kabangu’s name. He uses a dozen different versions, varying the order of the three main elements, occasionally adding a new one and often changing a spelling. His first name becomes his surname, his middle name becomes his first name. The name Jerome morphs into John, used as both first name and surname. His middle name Matondo becomes Mande and then a more recognisably South African Mandla. His surname goes from Kabangu to Kanda. His initials turn on themselves like a palindrome: he is JMK and KMJ. His name, an open-ended play on variants, is an index of his efforts to fashion a new identity.
The papers are full of telling repetitions. The key sections of the application forms, especially those that tell the story of leaving the DRC and make a case for not returning there, are written and rewritten many times. There are divergent versions of the same events in the same hand. If these are not fictions, they are certainly elaborations. In variations on a theme, someone is trying to perfect a story, to get it straight or make the most of it.
Among the papers are several letters addressed to the South African Consulate in Lubumbashi in support of visa applications by Congolese citizens wishing to travel to South Africa. In one sequence, a handwritten document becomes a sworn statement on an official form (unsigned and uncertified) and then a typewritten letter. These successive drafts, searching for clarity and formality, trace an approach to the bureaucracy, an attempt to meet its requirements and crack its codes.
Nearly all the letters, even the formal ones, are stained and tattered. The occasional dusty shoeprint is easily explained by the circumstances in which the papers were found, but the signs of wear tell other stories. The value of these papers lay in their use. They were carried in pockets or folded into wallets. Some of them are faded to the point of illegibility. The refugee identity papers issued by Home Affairs literally fall apart in your hands when you open them. Their ruined state is a sign of how close they were kept.
Why then were they left behind? It may be that the tenants of Flat 3607 had to leave in a hurry with no chance to sort and pack. Or it may be that the documents had outlived their usefulness. Perhaps it was simply time for Jerome Matondo Kabangu to give his name another twist and move on to a new address.
* Not their real names