Gabriel Hertis, a man who devoted his life to fighting for the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa and who worked to strengthen ties between South Africans and the migrant communities in their midst, succumbed to a brief illness in July 2 He was 50 years old.
Hertis was born on June 15, 1971 in Kigali, Rwanda and has always had a passion for education. His younger sister Delphine Niyigena said she has received calls from people around the world who were Hertis classmates since his death, calling him “brilliant” and “an intelligent student”. He had a strong character and sense of justice and was a voice for the downtrodden, as well as those who knew him.
Hertis’ passion for education was temporarily interrupted when he was during the 1994 genocide in which within around 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. Hertis, then in his early twenties, fled to Tanzania while his mother and two sisters fled to another province in Rwanda.
“We were lucky,” said Niyigena.
“We survived but my uncles, my aunts, my grandfather were all killed. ”
After a few months in Tanzania, Hertis traveled to South Africa, where he resumed his studies, which also included a degree in politics, peacebuilding and management . From the day he arrived, Hertis felt drawn to other vulnerable and struggling migrants and did everything possible to help them.
“When you look at how migrants are treated here in relation to papers and documents it will be documented to be a problem getting to school, it will be a problem to get medical care, it will be a problem. All of this made him an activist for the people so that he could at least give them easier access to documents. You will find people saying, “These are migrants,” but what has the government done to help people get documented? That’s what it was about him, ”said Niyigena.
After the xenophobic violence in South Africa in 2008, in which more than 60 people were killed, Hertis became an even more important voice and actor in migrant communities than one of the founding members of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF). This migrant-led organization works towards an integrated society that is free from xenophobia and other forms of discrimination.
After Hertis’ death, Abdul-Karim G. Elgoni, chairman of the forum, wrote that they “our community robbed “one of its pillars, whose leadership and commitment to work with and for migrants were the driving force behind the ADF.”
“The fallen ADF hero originally comes from Rwanda and was also strong involved in the organization and implementation of workshops. for migrants and local residents and community dialogues, combating xenophobia, responding to migrant emergency calls, contacting and working with government on social cohesion programs, planning and conducting ADF work, and mobilizing people and resources for the organization, ”Elgoni wrote.
Amir Sheikh, another founding member of the forum and its spokesman, became a close friend of Hertis for more than a decade of collaboration, including in Africa Awake, a non-profit organization that Hertis co-founded in 2013 .
“He was a man who saw no color, faith, or relationship. I am Muslim and I work with Afrika Awake and there are people of Jewish faith, but Gabriel could fit into all of these religions. He didn’t care whether he was a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew. What made sense to him was your humanity, “said Sheikh.
Hertis and Serge Lwamba, one of the co-founders of Afrika Awake and a member of the ADF, became brothers of Sheikh.
“Not a day went by that we did not communicate, the three of us, did not meet and have lunch, dinner or a cup of coffee together.
” Gabriel was not a leader of the migrant community around me. He was a brother and so I took it on my shoulders to make sure he got a decent burial. He was part of the diaspora community, but for me he was not a diaspora leader, he was a brother and a man I dealt with on a daily basis, “said Sheikh.
” His death is mine too personal. It is not easy. If you call me about Gabriel, tears run down my cheeks. ”
Until his last breath
Through Africa Awake, the ADF and the efforts of people like Sheikh, Hertis and Romy Petersen, many migrant communities and South Africans were given food, blankets and clothing as the extended lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic took its toll on marginalized people. People who lost their livelihoods or had very little before the pandemic relied on the work of these people and their organizations.
Sheikh said evidence of Hertis’ strong character was that the morning before him died, he was instrumental in delivering food to a group of Zimbabwean migrants. He did this from his bed.
“He was on his deathbed fighting for his life, but he was instrumental in thinking about the well-being of others. That was the character of Gabriel. I lost an older brother. ”
In 2019, refugees camped in front of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Cape Town demanding their relocation to other, safer countries. Then they moved to the Central Methodist Church in Greenmarket Square, where the situation soon became untenable when refugees and asylum seekers clashed with police and government officials.
Hertis, along with a delegation from the SA Human Rights Commission, traveled to Cape Town to meet the refugee leaders and convince them to stop their protest and return home. In a violent confrontation between the delegation and some refugee leaders, Hertis and Pastor Moise Awilo were injured. The clergyman was attacked by JP Balous, who tried to gouge his eyes out.
Petersen, who met Hertis and Lwamba after the xenophobic acts of violence in 2008 and who later joined Afrika Awake, described Hertis as “human”. < / p>
“Gabe, literally, if there was a picture in the dictionary that shows what a person is like, if you could include a picture of Gabe, instead of describing it in words, you could include a picture of Gabe “, She said.
” A human is someone with absolutely built-in integrity. It’s someone who puts others first, who always thinks of others, and he was an amazing person. He was unique in his attitude and skills. This is such a big loss.
“I feel so lost now that he is not here. He was always such a bright spot, such a comfort and a person to turn to in any situation. Especially when it came to xenophobia, he always knew what to do, ”said Petersen.
Hertis, who celebrated his birthday in June, had neither a wife nor children.
Niyigena said he always wanted to make sure she had a family before starting his own.
Those who worked closely with him said he found his family in the people he met he helped and cared for.
He grew up especially close to a group of orphaned children north of Pretoria who he cared for as if they were his own.
Petersen said , he probably would have preferred a simple and inexpensive funeral and the rest of the money to the orphans he cares about.
Hertis was buried on July 10th in West Park Cemetery, Johannesburg. p>
- This article was first published by New Frame