Sipho Sibanda is a human rights activist who has lived in Belfast since 2015 and specifically focuses on the rights of people seeking refuge in Northern Ireland.
In June 2020, Sipho was one of the speakers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Belfast which galvanised thousands of people to show radical solidarity with the global rebellion against police brutality and institutional racism.
In conversation with United Against Racism Belfast’s Ivanka Antova, she discusses challenges that Black and minority ethnic people face, the impact the BLM movement has had in the North, and her thoughts for the future.
Ivanka Antova: Sipho, you have been a human rights activist representing people from African descent and your community in North Belfast for years. What motivated you to be an activist?
Sipho Sibanda: I think I can safely say I have been an activist since I was young. It just didn’t have the fancy name of ‘activism’ then, it was being a troublemaker. I was one of those people that couldn’t shut up when I saw something that I felt wasn’t right.
When I moved to Belfast, I got accommodated in a home that was trashy to say the least. I felt the need to change that situation, unfortunately whilst still trying to fight the “hostile environment” during that process; this got me very depressed. In my state of depression, I needed an outlet and during that I found that outlet at NICRAS (NI Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers). A few of us had come together with similar housing complaints and we needed help, we just didn’t know where to go. Long story short, the Housing 4 All campaign was born.1
Ivanka Antova: What are some of the biggest challenges that the community you represent currently face?
Sipho Sibanda: My community faces a lot of challenges. For example, systematic racism which includes the hostility that was created by the government towards people seeking refuge. See, I will give you an example. What is the difference between a person seeking asylum and a person seeking international protection? It is the colour of their skin! But you see these terms were all cleverly designed to suit the government’s agenda and to exclude and criminalise asylum seekers. It is not a crime to seek international protection or asylum or refuge.
I work with people that live in accommodation that half the time is not suitable for use, but because they are “asylum seekers” they are expected to stay in that accommodation. I also work with people that find themselves homeless because of an immigration system that was designed to make a person homeless, hoping they would go back to a place that half the time is deemed dangerous for them. I assist these homeless individuals to find a place they can call home temporarily until the system can allow them back in again.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people in my community that live in houses of multiple occupancy have been forced to isolate in these houses; yet it is impossible to isolate in such conditions. How do you isolate with 1 kitchen shared between 6 residents, or a toilet to be shared with multiple residents? It is impossible. Do remember that asylum seekers only live on £5 weekly and are not allowed to work. So, when everyone was bulk buying, asylum seekers could not afford to do that.
Back to accommodating homeless people that the system would have chucked out. Three years ago, a housing association was brave enough to break the norm and gave us a property to accommodate people. Bear in mind that if one is a destitute asylum seeker they are not allowed to even book into a hostel; any hostel that is caught allowing that loses their funding. As I said earlier, it is all systemic.
So, we accommodated 4 women. One of the most positive things that came from that was that their mental health improved drastically, as they have said themselves. They finally could focus on their cases and send further submissions. This was something they could not do before as they had been ‘couch surfing’.
These are people that still have to go and report to the Home Office every other week to prove that they are still here, that they have not absconded, as the system says. Knowing that we could give these women some piece of mind for a limited time gave me peace in my heart.
Ivanka Antova: The year 2020 was marked by the Black Lives Matter global rebellion against institutional racism and police brutality. NI also took part in the global movement and you were a key speaker at the Belfast 6 June protest. What are your thoughts on the BLM movement internationally and in the North of Ireland?
Sipho Sibanda: The BLM movement in 2020 was class! it just uncovered all the racists and bigots. Some shocked themselves, I guess. My opening line on that day was, someone is sowing a seed of fear! I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was right. The way that demo was policed just revealed to us and the world that Black people are and will always be treated as second-class or third-class citizens if we don’t stand up. It left me with so much anger and mistrust in the PSNI. I had little trust in them anyway, but that little trust I had just went straight to the bin.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only person that was left feeling that way. Most people from ethnic minorities had little trust in the PSNI and that day just changed the landscape totally. Our demo on that day was the most peaceful and well planned in terms of social distancing and yet we were the only people that were treated like animals! I realised we were far from experiencing any equality or respect in Northern Ireland.
That demo was in solidarity with Black people in America as they had lost a soul to police brutality. A Black man had died in police hands, he begged for his life and he told them he could not breathe, but he was ignored. And yet, the PSNI felt they needed to do the same thing here with us.
Instead of standing with us and saying ‘yes, we are here to serve and protect, please keep to social distancing and show that Northern Ireland is a better place’, they chose to show that they are the State and will, figuratively speaking, kneel on our necks. The irony of it all is that these same police officials expect me to report racism to them.
BLM is a movement… no one can stop it, even if they dream of stopping it. One can oppress it in Northern Ireland but it will pop up elsewhere. People are tired of being oppressed; we need to find a way to live in harmony. This earth is big enough for all.
I believe we need to change the rhetoric. The media need to stop portraying Black people as dangerous and actually show our achievements and allow us to make these big decisions as well. It is time we are recognised as equals and humans. The slave trade is meant to be long gone and yet some people still hold on to slave-owner mentality.
Ivanka Antova: After two reports outlining the discriminatory and unfair policing of BLM, the fines, cautions and reports for prosecution are still standing. Why do you think the PSNI and other relevant institutions have failed to stop persecuting BLM activists?
Sipho Sibanda: It is a simple one really, we have no one to represent us. Everyone is focusing on their own issues and BLM movement is an irritating issue for people in politics. If you are seen to be advocating for BLM you look strange. There is one party that has stood unwavering on the issue and that party was People Before Profit (and a few elected reps from the Green Party). It did not matter that the issue was too hot to handle at some point and no politician was brave enough to stand with us when it was tough, they still stood by us even in the media.
Unfortunately, Northern Ireland has a history that has divided people into Green and Orange politics, so much so that if it does not suit these colours the issue is not important enough. People of colour have proved over and over that we have so many capabilities and we have so much to offer. We are capable of so much good and this scares a lot of people and they would rather we remain an oppressed people.
After that June 6 demo, we sat with the Justice Minister and a few people in the PSNI that had the power to actually drop those fines. We were told that there is an investigation going so that cannot be done. After that we saw some “apologies” in the media, which to us as Black people were just words that were not even worth the paper they were printed on. In short, the fines and cautions still stand. If we “belonged” to Northern Ireland as it is said, this would have been an issue long gone by now; yet it still hangs over our heads.
Ivanka Antova: Recently, we had a prominent politician write an offensive and racially ignorant comment, only to be allowed to declare himself as an ‘anti-racist’ whilst refusing to apologise. What are your thoughts on the racial bias that so many politicians from the establishment present that largely remains unchallenged?
Sipho Sibanda: When a person is anti-racist they don’t need to say it, they need to show it!
None of us that met with that politician actually believed his words. We were only trying to appeal to his human side, and I think we can safely say we failed!
The reason we continue to see such humiliating statements being made against us is because we don’t have proper representation. If people like the man I refuse to name knew that there would be repercussions whenever they said such vile statements, they would actually hold back. Not even his party members felt that his statement was wrong and yet he is a man with so many people that vote for him.
What he said was hate speech and he was allowed to get away with it. If he said the same thing and replaced the Black people with a different sector in the community, I can assure you apologies would be flying everywhere. But this will change some day, might not be in my time but I refuse for our children to grow up with such hate.
Ivanka Antova: Is it important for Black and minority ethnic people to get involved in politics?
Sipho Sibanda: Yes, without a doubt! Black and minority ethnic people choose to shy away from politics because it all looks too messy. Unfortunately, in all that messiness decisions that affect our lives are made. Some decisions that are made by people who have no idea what it is to be Black or be from an ethnic minority background just don’t benefit us. We can’t blame people for making these decisions for us, if we refuse to sit at that messed up table and take the blame when it comes. We need to be part of the decision making that affects us.
Ivanka Antova: What do you and activists like yourself hope to see in the years to come?
Sipho Sibanda: In the nearest future I am hoping for Black people and people from ethnic minorities to get vaccinated against COVID-19; we lost enough of our people already to this disease. I know we have very little trust in this vaccine and I don’t blame people from my community for the lack of trust, history has taught us horrible lessons.
I am also hoping that our cries will stop falling onto deaf ears. I am hoping that Black people and those from ethnic minorities will go out in their numbers and register to vote and actually vote wisely… And I am hoping the younger generation will also go out and vote wisely. I say the younger people because I know they want change. They are equally tired of seeing Stormont fall apart and being put together again over and over.
I hope to see people from ethnic minorities and Black people representing in Stormont and on TV, reading the news, reporting, acting and doing documentaries, without expecting someone to be speaking ill of us in the media the next day. I wish to see Black people in decision-making positions, including the health sector. I am hoping the upcoming census will actually give a perfect reflection of this place we all call home, for it has changed so much.
And lastly, I hope the PSNI will drop the fines and cautions from the BLM demos, as some activists are still being persued for the BLM demos that happen at the Belfast City Hall and Custom House Square.
- Housing4All are a group of asylum seekers who are trying to ensure that the human right to housing is realised for destitute asylum seekers in Northern Ireland. https://www.pprproject.org/housing4all-end-destitution-for-asylum-seekers-in-northern-ireland