Monday, July 14, 2008

Ixnay the 'xenophobia'

June 6

Unless you have had your head in the sand for the past two weeks, you will have heard of the spate of violence that has been taking place in various parts of South Africa.

While the exact genesis event for this tragedy is unclear, the tension between South African blacks and African blacks from other parts of the continent has been brewing for some time. In 2004, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu came under fire for comments he made about his concern over the simmering pot of hostility that existed in the poorer areas of the country, in large part created and fuelled by the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, which the government had thus far done a fine job of sweeping under the rug. Well, 4 years later, this aforementioned pot has not only boiled, but overflowed and flooded the kitchen.

Starting late week before last, I began getting emails from family and friends around the world enquiring about my well-being given what they had been seeing on TV and the Internet about what was going on in South Africa. Thankful for their concern, I had to tell them that were it not for, I wouldn't have known anything was going on (we don't have a television and I don't read the newspaper nearly often enough). Truth be told, here in Cape Town we felt far removed from the violence that was taking place in areas around Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria and other parts of the country. The horrifying images of burning bodies and stories of brutality and vandalism seemed as far away to us as they did to the international community whose media outlets were reporting the latest.

Until the middle of last week.

When the violence hit the Western Cape and things exploded here too. Reports of looting, violence, and murder in townships outside of Cape Town spread like wildfire. And then began the mass exodus. Thousands of black Africans from other parts of the continent who had been living in CT-area townships were either forced out or their homes, or took no chances and upped and left taking with them only what they could carry. Many sought refuge at police stations that turned them away or told them they could do nothing to help them. On Friday, the Home Affairs office in Nyanga was attacked by gunfire while scores of refugees waited outside. By Saturday, 5000 Somalis had assembled at Belleville train station and refused to leave or go to one of the camps that had been hastily set up by the city of Cape Town as they feared being deported. As is often the case in situations like these, churches opened their doors to house the displaced and were quickly bursting at the seams, unable to accommodate the numbers seeking shelter.

On Saturday morning, my housemate Catherine and I bought a span of groceries, baby food, nappies, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, toiletries and toys to drop off at the Methodist church in our neighbourhood that was housing some refugees. When we arrived we were told that our donation would be better put to use at another church in the next suburb where some women and children were being accommodated. When we arrived at SHADE (, we found one woman who had not slept in two days manning the phones and running the show on her own. It was immediately clear that she needed help so we dove in. From 10am until 8pm that night we undertook a variety of jobs between two sites, from answering phones and accepting and organizing donations, to deploying volunteers and helping the refugees at the church feel as comfortable as possible given the horrific circumstances.

The scene at the church in Observatory was relatively calm, given the situation. A group of about 70 people (almost all male, this having to do with the fact that many of those who come to SA from other countries are men who work and earn money here which they send home to their families), assembled in a church hall. On my way in I saw a young man sitting on a bag which I can only assume were all his belongings, with his arms wrapped around his torso and rocking back and forth. By contrast however, there were several groups sitting around playing cards and cracking jokes. Some Zimbabwean men in the kitchen were cooking up food for everyone while women peeled potatoes and sang. I found it impossible to understand how people could manage to laugh and keep high spirits in such dire circumstances, although as one later said, many had seen much worse in their own countries.

While there, I met an Angolan woman (one of only two women in the group). Overjoyed to be able to speak Portuguese with someone, she told me her story. She had been living in Phillipi for the past three years with her two-year old daughter and her daughter's father who was also Angolan. She worked in a shop braiding hair. When the violence started she was very afraid. She witnessed people being beaten and homes being destroyed. Although she wasn't beaten because those in her community liked her she said, they did tell her that she needed leave as the violence would only get worse.

Not long after, a young Zimbabwean woman arrived with a 2-month old baby in her arms. Frail and clearly exhausted, I have never seen a more bewildered look in someone's eyes than I did in hers. To say she looked terrified is an understatement. Bewildered. Frantic. Her baby was hungry and crying, she was cold and frightened, and she was by herself. Quickly given blankets and food, she was taken to the room where the few women and children were staying. Thankfully there were mattresses there, a luxury at that point for most of those in the main hall.

Thankfully food was not an issue at any of the places we were at, the outpouring of community support in this whole mess being one of the few rays of light. People mobilized quickly and countless donations were dropped off throughout the day. When we left on Saturday night the room in which we had been organizing food, clothes, toiletries, etc. was chock-o-block.

Back at SHADE early this morning, we were greeted with a report that there were 35 people at a police station needing somewhere to go. Once we were able to get a Minister at a neighbouring suburb to agree to open the doors of his church, various volunteers with cars went off to fetch and take the refugees to safety. Catherine was one of the drivers, and when she returned told of a conversation in the car en route to the church. The women were from Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and speaking French among themselves. They asked Catherine where she was from. When she told them she was Canadian, they asked each other why she was not at risk. She too was 'foreign', so why was she able to escape unscathed? A completely valid question and one that we amongst ourselves (the majority of the volunteers that we had seen and been working with were themselves too, 'foreign'), had been discussing earlier. Upon arriving at the church Catherine said, the Minister unlocked the doors. They were then led into a large hall which while it had a kitchen and a bathroom, there was nothing else. The aforementioned chock-o-block full room of goods at SHADE was subsequently emptied and sent on to this location.

Throughout the day countless donations were dropped off and volunteers arrived, eager to lend a hand in whatever way they could. Then we got news that the old pipes at the church in Obs, unable to handle the demands that were being put on them had burst and there was now no hot water and only one functioning toilet. For 70 people.

As I answered calls, mass was taking place in the small church (which is currently doubling up as the place of rest for the Zimbabwean families who are staying there) that is attached to the main building that houses the kitchen and main offices of SHADE. Beautiful voices sang hymns which gave way to a rousing chorus of 'Happy Birthday'. I couldn't help but smile and feel my heart tighten. While not particularly religious myself, I have always been cognizant of the healing and strengthening power of religion, having witnessed it myself since I can remember. This experience has in many ways only served to further solidify this belief.

Later, a young Xhosa man came to the door saying that he had a terrified young woman and her baby in his car. He had been driving home when a young man flagged him down and begged him to take his wife and daughter to safety. He took them to the police station, who said to send them on over to us. We got the woman and her baby settled, then gave her a phone to contact her husband. Not long after, he arrived at SHADE as well, and told me what had happened to them that evening.

Originally from Zimbabwe, when the violence started the husband arranged a room to stay in with a woman in Woodstock, packed his small family and all the belongings they could grab into a taxi and headed to Cape Town. The woman he had made the arrangement with said he and his family could stay there for a fee. Eager to get his wife and baby daughter to safety, he agreed. When they arrived however, after having unloaded all their belongings onto the sidewalk, the woman he had spoken with the day before told him she had never agreed to allow them to stay there. He said she was drunk, and called him all kinds of horrible names before slamming the door in his face. At that point, a group of gangsters descended upon the small family, sensing the opportunity to help themselves to the possessions that lay on the sidewalk. Suddenly surrounded by this group of young men, the husband panicked and stopped the passing car into which he put his wife and daughter and then went back to trying to ward off the gangsters. Neighbours, he said, were out of their houses watching the scenario unfold, but not one attempted to help him. Just as he was about to lose everything, a man came running down the street and chased the young hooligans away. He then helped the husband put all his belongings into his garage – which he promised to keep safe for him until things calmed down – and brought the husband to SHADE where his wife and daughter were waiting. Upon his arrival he was clearly and understandably shaken, but still ever so gracious and thankful to us for offering him and his family shelter and safety. 'I almost lost EVERYTHING,' he kept repeating as we led him to where his wife and daughter were waiting.

The following is an excerpt from an update email sent by Masiphumelele eMzantsi coordinator Rodney Ndyalvan recounting the state of affairs as of Monday morning.


The good news: Masiphumelele
The bad news: Soetwater

1. Masiphumelele leads South Africa and restores our southern peninsula dignity.

Brief outline of events:

· Thursday night: relatively minor trouble in Masi following evacuation of foreigners by police - mostly young drunken 'tsotsis' taking advantage of the situation and looting.

· Friday: Yandiswa Mazwane, community leader, mobilises all other leaders for peace rally with help of the 'Ubuntu Coalition' (eMzantsi Carnival, Art of Living, other NGOs). Leaders address packed community hall at 6pm, vociferous support expressed for foreigners ("we want them in 2010, why not now?"), wonderful prayer and singing, and candlelit vigil (featured on eTV news Sat night). Tangible sense of calm restored on leaving at 7pm.


· Saturday: community leaders hold two follow up meetings, first to allow their community to voice any concerns. Quite apparent this is not evidence of xenophobia, but rather persistent economic stress (NB no force was used against foreigners in Masi). 2nd meeting of all community structures made a plan to restore righteous order...

· Sat night: joint community and police effort to recover all stolen property by going door to door. Involving ANC, SANCO, Salvation Army - everyone. Street committees re-empowered. Masi pride restored.

· Sun morning: people still spontaneously bringing stuff back. All taken to Ocean View police station for safekeeping.

· Sun afternoon: Premier arrives to congratulate Masi community leaders. Deputation take memo to Soetwater to read to refugees to invite them back home. More than 70 people welcomed back to Masi with a KFC supper in the late evening.

PLEASE NOTE this was a community initiated, and community driven effort. eTV news on Sunday made out this was a police exercise, but the police supported the community, not the other way round. Masi leaders should be praised for doing on Friday what Mbeki had not had the courage to do - stand up and say "This is not acceptable here. We condemn it, and we will act immediately to make amends." We in the South should be proud of them.

2. Africa Day in Soetwater

As we drove into the refugee camp just before 10am on Sunday morning, the fog hung heavy over Soetwater, like some smoking post-apocalyptic movie set. But this was not Vietnam, or Pearl Harbour – this was Cape Town on Africa Day 2008. Six huge drafty tents emerged from the gloom, and suddenly we saw vast numbers of people, queuing up for a meagre meal from the makeshift soup kitchen, or hanging around looking completely lost. Such a beautiful setting, by the side of the ocean; yet such a site of horror as we began to hear the stories of people who'd arrived there from across the city.

There was Alvino from Angola, whose brother was killed on Friday, and who was so traumatised by the guilt of leaving the body to save himself, he could barely speak. There was Maria* from the Congo, who was raped on Thursday, didn't know where her teenaged son was and just wanted to be given a pair of panties and a place to sleep. There was Noor-Ali from Somalia, a very smart young man in a stylish leather jacket, who had spent years working his way up from cleaning cars for change to owning his own business, only to have absolutely everything he owned snatched away from him in minutes. They, and most of the estimated 1500 people there, were in an extreme state of shock.

Who was there to comfort and reassure them?

Stalwart volunteers from Ocean View Baptist Church and Living Hope were already tackling the most urgent needs of feeding people and attending to the sick. But there was a complete vacuum of any central authority. The police were waiting for orders, and seemed to have no idea what to do beyond patrolling the perimeter. As more volunteers arrived to help, there was no one to direct their energies, no one with a plan, no one even with an appropriate registration document ready to distribute in order to get a handle on the situation.

Disaster management were doing what they could, which wasn't much. A official from the province explained to me that they had staff trained to deal with a local disaster – but not a whole outbreak of them across the province, from Knysna to the south peninsula – and there just weren't enough people or resources available to cope. The poor man who had been designated 'in charge' was a housing officer, untrained in crisis management or trauma counselling, and he was doing a sterling job in impossible circumstances.

As we stood there wondering where to start, two more buses arrived, offloading yet more shell-shocked people. Tensions amongst those who had been waiting 24 hours already without a single word from the authorities on what was going to happen to them began to mount. Sharp words were exchanged between Somalians and Congolese, each feeling more vulnerable than the other. Making an attempt to understand their concerns, in my inadequate French (there wasn't a single translator available), I was led to understand by a group of about 50 angry, frustrated and articulate people that many of the refugees have survived genocide once already in Rwanda and DRC, and are just not prepared to risk it again.

Unlike the foreign residents of Masiphumelele, who were evacuated by the police on Friday as a precaution, these people - from Phillipi, from Du Noon, and from Khayelitsha - had been violently chased from their homes. They do not trust South Africans anymore. They want to leave this country. They do not trust the government. Why should they – the government had 2 weeks' notice to make a plan to safeguard them, and they didn't. They do not believe the local police can protect them, and fear a mob coming down and driving them into the beautiful sea.

In the late afternoon, the Premier finally arrived, ready for a triumphant photo opp as he planned to announce the Masiphumelele community leaders' magnificent mobilisation to restore the homes and property of those foreigners expelled last week. His staff had no idea the majority of the refugees were not from Masiphumelele and were completely unprepared for the hostile reception he got. But he responded well, sitting down cross-legged on the ground, first with Congolese leaders and then with the Somalians, taking the time to listen to their fears and their written lists of demands. He promised that the UNHCR would be here by tomorrow, that their concerns would be respected and their opinions consulted.

He left as the sun began to set and the cold fog began to creep back in. If by the time you read this, there are still people at Soetwater who don't know what the government's plan is, we should all be ashamed. Ashamed enough to stand up and act without them. There are pregnant mothers and children sleeping tonight on cardboard on the freezing floor whose only crime was to be born elsewhere on our continent.

Happy Africa Day.

* not her real name

NB: Reassuringly, local councilors Felicity Purchase and Nicki Holderness were on the ground as we left last night, local police were doing the best they could, and bakkie loads of officials had started to arrive... watch this space.

The Art of Living Foundation is offering trauma relief programmes in both Masiphumelele and Soetwater – contact Candi Horgan on 082 561 2879 for information. They would like to thank Cafe Roux, Noordhoek, for lending them their tent.

If you have food, clothes, blankets, heaters or baby supplies to donate, please take them to the Sun Valley Pick'n'Pay for distribution to those in need.
If you would like to volunteer an hour of your time, email or leave your contact details on 021 789 1665. We will call you if and when we can use you.

Sam Pearce
from the office of the eMzantsi Carnival project

When I arrived at SHADE after work on Monday, I went to greet the Angolan family that was staying in the attached church-cum-shelter. I found the three young boys with whom I had been playing and chatting in Portuguese with the day before sitting outside accompanied by a fourth boy I had not seen before. A few seconds into our conversation they informed me that this new boy did not speak Portuguese. I asked him his name and where he was from. He told me and said he was Zimbabwean. I asked him his age. ‘15’, came his quiet reply. I asked him where his family was, he said Zimbabwe. I asked him who had brought him to SHADE and he told me a white man had. Confused, I asked who he lived with in South Africa. He said his older brother. I asked where his brother was, and he replied that he didn't know. That when the violence had started his brother had left and never returned. He had no phone number for his brother, nor for his parents in Zim. A feeling of dread filled my stomach and I quickly did the math. This young man was on his own. Completely on his own in a foreign country with only the clothes he was wearing. Best case scenario his brother was in another shelter somewhere in the city and worst case…well…

I asked him to write down his brother's name and told him that we would try and locate him. As he did he told me that he thought his brother had gone back to Zimbabwe.

We went to the room that was being used to store all the donations to get him sorted with some basic toiletries, blankets and clothing. As I kneeled on the ground and rummaged through the [once well-organized but now] pile of donated clothes, I was overwhelmed with sadness at imagining what must have been going through his head at that moment. The fear. The confusion. The loneliness. And yet he wasn't complaining. He wasn't making a fuss. He just stood quietly and watched. He asked me where I was from. He laughed when I handed him a pair of jeans about 8 times too large and said that we could fit both of us in them – each in one pant leg. When we were done he thanked me and headed back to the room where he would be sleeping.

Later I found out that he had been in South Africa less than three weeks.

And then there was the young Malawian man who had been in South Africa for two years on his own, working to earn money and send home to his two younger brothers. His parents had both died, so the responsibility for providing for the family was his. He said that earlier that day he had gone back to where he had been staying only to find that his house had been burned down. Everything he had was gone. 'I don't know what I am going to do now, but all I know for sure is that I can't go back there. I can't go back,' he said. Fighting some sort of cold since he arrived at SHADE, almost every time I saw him he was either lying on his mattress or sitting outside by himself, staring off into the distance.

People came and went throughout the evening, needing everything from food to nappies and clothing to soap. We would get a call about another church being opened and have to organize food to send over. I don't think I've ever handled more cans of baked beans, corned beef, tuna, peanut butter, long life milk, sugar, maize, rice, cooking oil, toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper, bread or vegetables than I have in the last few days. Catherine's car has put more clicks on it and had more people in it since Saturday than in the past 6 months combined.

By early Tuesday things were looking up somewhat as news came through that some of the violence was calming down. Community leaders were making efforts to get talks going between those who had been perpetrating the violence and those who it had been committed against, and some stolen goods had been returned to local police stations.

And then there was the bad news.

The 'camps' that had been set up by the state Government were a mess. Overcrowded, dirty, not enough food, and cold. There were reports that media was being denied access into them. Outbreaks of diarrhoea were popping up everywhere. Basic medical care was inadequate, never mind the attention needed by those on anti-retrovirals. That evening, when Catherine went to pick up a few people who we had arranged to transfer from Soetwater to the Methodist church in Elies River, she was greeted by scores of people lined up for food, and begging her to take them with her.

That afternoon I had a conversation with the Zimbabwean husband. He asked me what I was doing in South Africa. When I said that I was teaching high school, he told me that he had been an Economics teacher in his country before he left. He came to South Africa 3 years ago, he told me, and set up a small barbershop business out of a ship container. Things were going well for him and his wife, and they were welcomed by the community. A few years later their daughter was born. Then his business went under and he got a job working construction at the site of the stadium that is being built for 2010. When the violence started everything changed overnight. The same community that had welcomed him were now strangers who were thirsty for his blood. His success, and that of any other non-South African-born black he said, was seen by community members as their failure. When the first house on his street was torched, he knew things were going to get much worse, and fast. He was the first one to the police station in his community he said, and half an hour after he arrived 2 Somalian men arrived bleeding profusely from their heads. I told him that I was worried about my students, as most of them lived in the communities where this was happening. He asked me how old my students were. When I told him he said that they were the main ones perpetrating the violence. The ones burning the homes, looting and attacking people were mostly teenagers.

Later that evening we drove out to the Elies River church to drop off supplies. We were pleased to find that the floor of the rooms where people were sleeping were wood rather than concrete, although even still, the church was cold. In the room where the women and children were staying there were about 6 children, all under the age of 8, and all of whom had been born in South Africa, and were being chased away from their homes with their families for being 'foreign'. How's that for irony?

As we unloaded the car the parish members who had mobilized and assembled there had a million questions for us regarding what they should do to get things going. On the car ride back to town we couldn't help being somewhat amused at how on Saturday morning our plan had been to drop off a donation of goods, and now 4 days later we were being sent to set up refugee shelters.


I began writing this post early Monday morning when we had returned from SHADE. It is now Wednesday and have only just had a chance to catch my breath. On both Monday and Tuesday I went strait to the church from work, and stayed until exhaustion got the best of me. I have spent almost every minute of the last 96 hours that I have not been sleeping or at school at SHADE, and while it has been overwhelmingly intense and devastating and draining, it has and continues to be, an incredible experience. The strength and resilience of the people I have met absolutely blows me away. In an instant many have lost everything, yet are not seeking pity, only food, shelter and safety. The four teenaged Mozambican friends who had fled Khayalitcha together and came to us for help were so thankful when I loaded them up with food, clothing and magazines, and I couldn't help but laugh when the last one in the group called me an angel and then cheekily grabbed my bum as he hugged me goodbye. And the faith. The one constant thread between all of the refugees I have come into contact with – be they Somalis, Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Rwandan, Malawians, Angolans, or those from the DRC – is their unwavering faith that God will take care of them. 'Que Dieu vous benisse,' I have been told on more than one occasion. While he was talking about everything he had seen and experienced, the Zimbabwean husband interspersed his words with jokes and laughter and 'thanks be to God'. I told him how it amazed me how much laughter I had heard and smiles I had seen in the midst of all this chaos. We have to laugh, he told me, otherwise we will go crazy.

And then there are my students. All of whom, in some way have been affected by what is going on. Either as witnesses or in some cases active participants, it is in the very communities that they live that these atrocities are taking place.

On Monday's assembly at school, the Principal and English HOD (P.) had spoken about the attacks and violence that had taken place over the weekend. About how it was wrong and how students must stay away from it. 'Even if you only take a loaf of bread from a shop that has been broken into,' P. told them, 'you are just as guilty as the one who broke the window to get in'. The reaction from students had been mixed. It was clear there was a divide in where they stood on the issue. In my classes that day, I asked them what was going on.

'Xenophobia!' came their chorused reply.

'Okay,' I replied, 'now how many of us know what xenophobia means?'

Not one student in any of my classes knew.

And so, I wrote the definition on the board.

Xenophobia is a fear or contempt of that which is foreign or unknown, especially of strangers or foreign people.
[1] It comes from the Greek words ξένος (xenos), meaning "foreigner," "stranger," and φόβος (phobos), meaning "fear." The term is typically used to describe a fear or dislike of foreigners or of people significantly different from oneself.

After we read through it, I asked them why, if it's a fear of that which is foreign or unknown, I am not under siege. I am clearly foreign, so why is my house not being burnt down?

'Because you are white, miss', they told me.

Okay, so how about the part where it says people significantly different from oneself? Are these people from neighboring countries not our brothers and sisters who happen to live on the other side of a border someone drew once upon a time?

It didn't take long for any of the discussions to take flight and become very heated. Their views came from both sides – those who were in favour of kicking out the Makwirikwiri (the word they use to refer to foreigners), and those who said they should stay and that the violence was wrong.

Those against the violence raised valid points about the fact that the people who are here are often fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries, that during the Apartheid era many South Africans sought refuge in neighboring countries, and that people were now doing to others what had been done to them under the old regime.

Those on the other side of the fence echoed the sentiments that we have seen quoted in the newspaper and that I heard even some of my colleagues discussing regarding their belief that foreigners come and steal jobs from them, commit crime and sell drugs, put South Africans out of business by selling their goods for lower prices, and – from the boys in the group – steal their girlfriends.

For the most part it was a gender divide, girls against the violence, boys in favor, although there were definitely boys on the anti-violence side as well. Those in favour, I imagine, are likely being used as pawns by older siblings and relatives, and have likely committed some of the crimes themselves. As always however, I do not ask or listen when they try to tell me as this is not something I want to know about them, and when some of the boys began talking about how the foreigners must go back or be killed, I felt sick to my stomach. Teenagers speaking in such a way, and with such conviction in their voices. Shocking. Equally awful was the calm with which one of my students told me that he had seen a Somalian man beat to death in front of him the day before, right after a group of tsotsis burnt the shack of a Congolese family to the ground. 'It is the gangsters doing this miss,' he told me, 'They like it. We can't tell them to stop or they'll hurt us too. That's just the way it is.'

And now….

It has now been close to five weeks since I began writing this blog. I added to it throughout the two weeks that we were immersed in helping out in whatever way we could, and as I recounted the events gone by, reality unfolded itself all around me. Since the day this all began, things have quietened down significantly and SHADE has gone back to its regular working hours. This is not to say that things have gone back to normal – far from it. While some people have moved back to the communities from which they were originally driven, many are still displaced, living in shelters or homeless. Some have been deported. Others have willingly returned to their home countries where despite likely facing persecution upon arrival, prefer this option to staying in South Africa and dealing with the aftermath of the attacks.

Ten pages in Word feel far from sufficient to address the full extent of what has been since termed as the “dark days of May” here in South Africa. In reading over the words I wrote what now feels like forever ago, I can only hope that they offer at least a glimpse of the horrors that the nation’s people – driven to such action by poverty and neglect created and maintained by their own government – inflicted on their neighbouring brothers and sisters in a turn of events that Dr. Tutu was chastised for prophesising almost 5 years ago.


NB: see,,2-7-2382,00.html for more up-to-date information on the current state of affairs regarding this issue.


frankie said...

Alex, this is a very disturbing blog and I am astounded at the way you have thrown yourself into helping in anyway you can. I wish I could have been there to help. It seems very disheartening but that is Africa. It has always been like this since long before the white man arrived on the continent. Life is cheap in Africa and the dichotomy is generally that on the one hand they are joyous and laugh and joke but two minutes later can kill. Take care - love Frankie

kareem said...

alex, thanks for sharing this incredible story.