About 300 Ethiopians descended on the streets of Sandton on Wednesday, almost bringing business to a standstill.
They gathered at noon on the corner of Alice Lane and 5th Street, outside the Sandton Convention Centre, which is hosting this year’s Global African Diaspora Summit.
“Freedom!” they cried. “Allahu Akbar (Arabic for “Praise be to God”),” they yelled. “Viva South Africa, viva!” they cheered.
Most of the participants were political asylum-seekers from Ethiopia now living in Joburg. Their banners read “Meles Zenawi, most notorious, evil, brutal east African dictator Terrorist alive!”.
Zenawi, Ethiopian president for the past 21 years, arrived in Joburg on Wednesday to attend the three-day summit.
Mulugeta Felkea, chairman of the human rights organisation Better Ethiopian, left his home country seven years ago after family members were killed by the regime’s security forces.
“We can’t protest like this in Ethiopia. The soldiers would just shoot us,” he said.
“We want the South African government to influence the international community to take action against Zenawi. He must stop the harassment, release political prisoners and have real elections,” said Felkea.
He said there were officially more than 50 000 Ethiopians in SA, but reckoned there were many more under the radar.
Fana Dereje, general secretary of the Ethiopian Community Organisation, said: “We would return to Ethiopia tomorrow if peace was restored.”
“Right now we are second-class citizens in our own country. The people are hungry, but Zenawi gives us bullets.
The Ethiopian community thanks South Africa for hosting us during these hard times,” he said.
The strongest voice on the loudhailer, leading the men at the front of the march, was that of a woman – actress, journalist and activist Gelila Mekonnen.
She was due to leave on Thursday for Amsterdam, where she works at the Ethiopian Satellite Television headquarters.
“The Ethiopian government calls our independent television station a terrorist channel, but we are simply struggling for democracy,” said Mekonnen.
On Sunday night, more than 1 000 Ethiopian migrants met at the Standard Bank Arena in Joburg to raise funds for the tv station, which they hope to launch in SA this year.