For the last few weeks, starting around the middle of May, terrible violence has flared up in some of our townships. There have been attacks on foreigners, primarily on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from other African countries, for example Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Malawi, Nigeria, the Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola. They have fled civil wars, genocides, brutal suppression, hunger and drought in their own countries.
The terms bandied about in the media have been xenophobia and xenophobic violence, although some politicians have said that the violence is not so much because our local South Africans fear the foreigners, but mainly because our locals are themselves destitute, poor, unemployed and starving, with no hope that the claim by political leaders of “a better life for all” will ever come true for them.
Other politicians have said that it is criminal elements who are behind the mob-violence, and declared loudly that all perpetrators of violence and looting will be arrested and punished according to the law. Personally, I think it should be quite easy to identify them, as they are the ones who were smiling triumphantly at the omnipresent journalists and cameramen who were taking photos and video clips of them. But our prisons are full to overflowing… despite what the government has said about there always being enough space for criminals.
Many of the foreigners who’ve arrived in South Africa are actually highly skilled, educated and qualified people who are eager to improve their lot by becoming entrepreneurs and opening their own businesses (hairdressers, cellphone shops, township spaza shops, traders, etc.). So it is their success that has, ironically, led to them being the targets of jealousy, revenge and criminality. Locals also claim that foreigners are taking away their jobs, their houses, and their women, and that they are engaged in crime.
I guess that justifies beating them up, setting them and their houses on fire, looting their shops and possessions, stealing their money, raping their women, and killing them?
The matter isn’t helped by the fact that the South African government has never been willing, or perhaps it is simply incapable, to stop hundreds of thousands of refugees from all over Africa coming to our country, because it is still commonly regarded as ‘the promised land’. Well, I suppose by comparison to the mess north of us, it is.
In addition, our understaffed, corrupt, badly run and utterly incompetent Department of Home Affairs has enough difficulties processing applications for birth, death and marriage certificates, identity documents and passports by legitimate local South Africans. So its inability to deal with foreign refugees and asylum seekers from elsewhere has long been acknowledged as a disaster-in-waiting. Not that much is really being done about it. Well, maybe now? Hm, I wouldn’t quite hold my breath.
Initially, the foreigners who had been chased out of the neighbourhoods, where many of them have been living for years, accepted to a greater or lesser extent by the community (or so they thought), sought shelter in police stations, churches and community halls, but this was clearly not a sustainable situation. So a couple of camps were set up – with the government insisting that these are not refugee camps. A matter of semantics, I should think!
Chris Dorsey, a volunteer who is currently in South Africa, wrote about his experiences of the Soetwater Refugee Camp outside the small beachfront suburb of Kommetjie. There are currently about 3,500 people living there. Initially, almost all the food, clothing, bedding, etc. was donated by South Africans who were dismayed at these events. There is a slideshow with commentary about the Soetwater refugees here and some more photos here.
In the meantime, the councillors of the Democratic Alliance and the African National Congress in the City of Cape Town were squabbling among themselves (as always), and the City of Cape Town itself and the leaders of the Province (Premier Ebrahim Rasool) squabbled about who had jurisdiction, who was responsible for paying what, and what should be done with the refugees – whether they ought to be repatriated to their countries of origin or reintegrated into their local communities.
Meanwhile, volunteers who had streamed into the camps to help were being stretched to the limit. And the winter rains and winds in the Cape weren’t helping matters either. Many tents do not have ground sheets, they leak, the wind gets in, clothes and bedding become soaked, and difficult to get dry again (see this blog).
I read that the problem is also that the different nationalities of foreigners do not get along; so they are trying to keep them apart in different tents, in addition with preparing food in accordance with their religious beliefs and customs. Apart from that, the fact that refugees come from the same country does not necessarily mean that they like each other – they may come from opposite sides of a civil war, or from warring tribes. So it is complicated.
The government now wants them to return to their countries of origin, if they can, or to return to the neighbourhoods from which they had been chased out to be reintegrated. Er… what?!
For updates on the refugee situation, with a focus on the Cape Town area, you can also have a look at this blog by the eMzantsi Ubuntu Coalition.