Gabriel Hertis, a man who dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa, and working towards strengthening relationships between South Africans and the migrant communities in their midst, succumbed to a short illness on 2 July. He was 50 years old.
Born in Kigali, Rwanda, on 15 June 1971, Hertis always had a passion for education. His younger sister, Delphine Niyigena, says since his passing she has been getting calls from people all over the world who were classmates of Hertis describing him as “brilliant” and “a bright student”. He had a strong character and a stronger sense of justice and was a voice for the downtrodden, according to those who knew him.
Hertis’ passion for education was temporarily cut short when he had to flee Rwanda in the 1994 genocide in which about 800 000 people were killed over 100 days. Hertis, then in his early 20s, fled to Tanzania while his mother and two sisters escaped to a different province in Rwanda. “We were lucky,” said Niyigena. “We survived, but my uncles, my aunts, my grandfather, they were all killed.”
After a few months in Tanzania, Hertis travelled to South Africa, where he would resume his studies, which included tertiary qualifications in politics, peace-building and management. Hertis was drawn to other vulnerable and struggling migrants from the day he arrived and went out of his way to help them.
“Well, looking at how migrants are treated here in terms of getting papers, getting documented… It will be a problem getting into school, it will be a problem getting healthcare, it will be an issue. All that really made him become an activist for the people, so that he can at least help make it easier for them to access documentation. You will find people saying ‘these are migrants’, but what has the government done to help people get documented? And that was what he was all about,” Niyigena said.
In the wake of the 2008 xenophobic violence in South Africa when more than 60 people were killed, Hertis became an even more important voice and actor in migrant communities as one of the founding members of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF). This migrant-led organisation works towards an integrated society free of xenophobia and other forms of discrimination.
A pillar fitting everywhere
Following Hertis’ death, Abdul-Karin G Elgoni, the current chairperson of the forum, wrote that it has “robbed our community of one of its pillars, whose leadership and dedication to working with and for migrants was the driving force behind the ADF”.
“Originally from Rwanda, the fallen ADF hero was also heavily involved in organising and running workshops for migrants and locals and community dialogues, fighting xenophobia, responding to distress calls from migrants, liaising and working with government on social cohesion programmes, planning and carrying out ADF work and mobilising people and resources for the organisation,” Elgoni wrote.
Amir Sheikh, another founding member of the forum and its current spokesperson, became a close friend of Hertis over more than a decade of working together, also in Afrika Awake, a non-profit organisation that Hertis helped found in 2013.
“He was a man who did not see colour or creed or relationship. I’m a Muslim working with Afrika Awake, there are actually people of the Jewish faith, but Gabriel could fit into all this religion. Whether you’re a Muslim or a Christian or from the Jewish faith, it didn’t matter to him. What makes sense to him was actually your humanity,” Sheikh said.
Hertis, along with Serge Lwamba, one of the co-founders of Afrika Awake and a member of the ADF, became brothers of Sheikh. “There was no day that actually passed without us communicating, the three of us, or without actually meeting that day having either lunch or dinner or actually having a cup of coffee together.
“So Gabriel was not actually a migrant community leader to me. He was a brother to me and that is actually why I took upon my shoulder to stand so that he gets a befitting burial. Yes, he was part of the diaspora community, but to me he was not a diaspora leader, he was a brother and a man that at least I interacted with on a daily basis,” Sheikh said.
“His death is too personal to me. It is not easy. I have lost family members of my own, but I haven’t actually shed as many tears for me. Whoever calls me about Gabriel, tears will roll down my cheeks.”
Until his last breath
Through Afrika Awake, the ADF and the efforts of people like Sheikh, Hertis, and Romy Petersen, many migrant communities as well as South Africans received food, blankets and clothes as the extended lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic started taking its toll on marginalised people. People who lost their livelihoods, or had very little to begin with before the pandemic, came to rely on the work these people and their organisations did.
Sheikh says a testament to Hertis’ strong character is that on the morning before he died, he was still instrumental in arranging for food to be delivered to a group of Zimbabwean migrants. He did this from his bed.
“It’s really hours later that you actually know he passed on. He was on his deathbed and struggling for his life, but he was still instrumental in thinking about the wellbeing of others. That was the character of Gabriel. I actually lost an elderly brother.”
In 2019, a group of refugees camped outside the United Nations High Commission for Refugees offices in Cape Town demanding to be resettled in other, safer countries. They then moved to the Central Methodist Church in Greenmarket Square, where the situation soon became untenable as refugees and asylum seekers clashed with the police and government officials.
Hertis, along with a delegation of the South African Human Rights Commission, travelled to Cape Town to meet the refugee leaders and try to persuade them to stop their protest and return home. During a violent altercation between the delegation and some of the refugee leaders, Hertis was injured along with Pastor Moise Awilo. The clergyman was attacked by JP Balous, who tried to gouge out his eyes.
Petersen, who met Hertis and Lwamba following the 2008 xenophobic violence and later joined Afrika Awake, describes Hertis as a “mensch”.
“Gabe, literally, if there was a picture in the dictionary of what a mensch is like, if instead of describing it in words you can put a picture there, you could put a picture of Gabe,” she said. “A mensch is somebody with absolute built-in integrity, it’s just somebody who puts others first, who always thinks of others, and he was just really an incredible human. He was just so unique in his outlook and his skills. This is such a huge loss.
“I feel so lost now that he’s not here anymore. You know, he was just such a guiding light always, such a comfort and such a person you can turn to in any situation. But especially when it came to xenophobia, he just always knew what to do. It is such an extreme loss,” Petersen said.
Hertis, who had just had his birthday in June, did not have a wife or children of his own. Delphine says he always wanted to make sure she started a family first, before he would start his own, while those who worked closely with him would say he found his family in the people he helped and cared for.
He grew particularly close to a group of orphaned children living north of Pretoria, for whom he cared as if they were his own. Petersen says he would likely have preferred a simple and inexpensive funeral and for the rest of the money to be sent to the orphans he cared about so much.
Hertis was buried on 10 July at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg.