Observing xenophobia

By Time of article published Jun 8, 2008

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By Sam Pearce

Sunday May 25: I sit behind an angry young man from the DRC as he challenges Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool face to face at Soetwater. Serge Bami was forced to flee his home in Langa, and after five years of living in South Africa with daily xenophobic abuse, he is incensed by the premier's easy talk of re-integration.

"How can there be re-integration, where there has never been integration?" shouts Serge. "The government cannot protect us, even if we believe they want to. We demand the UN." The crowd join his cry, and the premier promises him that the UN is already on the plane to Cape Town, and that their concerns will be listened to.

Tuesday May 27: Serge calls and asks if I will help him publicise the Soetwater refugee leadership's message. "Sure," I say, "I'll find out who's handling that". I spend the morning calling NGOs who normally tackle this sort of thing and end up very depressed. No one is able to direct me to anyone taking charge of a dialogue between the refugees and the outside world that I was convinced must be happening somewhere.

Someone suggests I come into town to make plans with which to go to the leadership. I respectfully counter that surely the point is to go to them first and hear what their plans are and work from there?

Wednesday May 28: I meet the leaders of the lower camp for the first time in a cold corner of a flapping tent in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. The senior leader is Mwamba Kazadi, better known as Pastor Alain, a tall, softly spoken man from the DRC, who listens more than he talks, although his English is better than my French. The more extrovert Serge has naturally become the spokesperson for the Refugee Leadership Committee (RLC).

The Zimbabweans are stressed - they are worried their countrymen are going to be deported and face violence and death at the hands of Zanu-PF in camps on the other side of Beit Bridge.

Meanwhile officials and volunteers all over the camp roll their eyes whenever the Somalis are mentioned. They already have a bad reputation as volatile and aggressive. I point out that you might be a bit touchy yourself if you'd narrowly escaped death during civil war, crossed the continent at great risk to the promised safe haven of SA, worked your way up from penniless to being able to give credit to your neighbours - only to have those neighbours turn on you. As a group, they have experienced the most xenophobic attacks: in 2006 alone there were around 300 murders of Somalis in townships across the Western Cape.

I try to explain they are not threatening to go on hunger strike just to be drama queens, but because they genuinely fear being poisoned by South Africans who hate them.

I am just about to leave as the evening meal is being served around 8.30pm (pasta out of margarine containers, no forks) when a volunteer races in out of the rain and shrieks at me: "All the whites, out of the tent, now!" and runs out again. Confused, I look round to see if anyone else has noticed, but everyone is tucking into their long-overdue food. Later I discover that lights were shorting out in the Volunteer Control Centre (VCC) because of rain pouring in through the roof, and a message had come through "Get the lights out of the tent, now!" Chinese whispers and barely suppressed fears did the rest. Isn't that how "an outbreak of xenophobic violence" starts?

Thursday May 29: I am trying to find a conflict resolution specialist. A man from the premier's office calls me. He is charming and experienced and suave, and makes two major mistakes while trying to convince me all is under control. First, when I mention the leaders, he says with just a mite too much disdain in his voice "Well, they say they're the leaders". "They've been elected," I counter, but he says nothing.

Second, when I explain how Serge has been visiting all the camps this week trying to establish lines of communication to share information, he says, "I don't think that's a good idea". Why not? I invite him to join a leadership meeting at the camp the next day and he says he'll get back to me. He hasn't yet.

Friday May 30: I am trying to get some media coverage for the RLC. If the politicians won't come to Soetwater, we have to take the message to them in a way they can't ignore - the press. I hear the deputy president has just visited the camp, but didn't even get out of her car. The leaders are not impressed.

Waiting for Pastor Alain, I meet Abdulahi Noor from Mogadishu, who tells me "If I go back to my country, I die. If I stay here I die - and I would rather die in my country." I am shocked that he sees no other options. He is 22.

The storm starts again. I watch volunteers shooing a group of Ethiopians out of the VCC tent into the pouring rain. "One at a time," they insist. No one can deny these women working round the clock have big hearts, but I wish I could make them understand how important your dignity becomes to you when everything else has been ripped away. I want to ask: 'would you treat your mother like that?'

Saturday May 31: I speak to the Sheikh of Ocean View, who has been co-ordinating the supply of halaal food to around 2 500 Muslim Somalis for over a week, and is a conflict resolution expert already. He is very happy to hear of the RLC's media plans as he needs something to dissuade them from doing something desperate to get the world's attention.

We introduce the leader of the upper camp, the Ameer Mohamed Dadoy and the leader of the lower camp, Pastor Alain, to each other. The Ameer is a giant of a man, who has managed to unite the various Somali tribes into a shura committee of 15 leaders. The Somali spokesperson Muhamed is slight, with small rectangular polaroids, and a prayer towel around his neck. I am shocked to discover he is only 18, and wonder why they have sent such a young man to represent them.

The RLC gather at my house for their first interview, with Weekend Argus. The voicing of the wishes of their people to a reporter who listens respectfully seems to solidify them as a group. They almost visibly swell with confidence over the hour they are talking. The reporter leaves to make her deadline, and everyone seems very satisfied. It's lunchtime, and, wanting to celebrate the achievements of the week, and being a dreadful cook, I have asked a friend from Masiphumelele to cater for the RLC.

When she and her husband walk in with containers of chicken, vegetables and rice, the temperature in the room drops like a stone. Muhamed walks out on to the balcony. I realise immediately I have made a terrible mistake and ask my Xhosa friends to leave. I sit and apologise to the group: "I am so sorry. I did not want you to be uncomfortable in my house. I just wanted you to eat well and I thought that if we could sit and eat together, here, then there could be hope for South Africa." They look away, and I start to cry.

When Muhamed sees my tears, he is overcome and starts apologising. "Forgive me, my mother!" he says over and over. I am blown away by his tenderness and demonstration of the tenets of his faith. If someone had been so grossly insensitive to me at 18, I would not have been so gracious. Now I understand why he is the spokesperson.

And finally I understand why re-integration is not possible for most. It is too little, too late.

Sunday June 1: I can't sleep for guilt and remorse, and get up after three hours to write a fervent update on Soetwater situation to my NGO's database:

"There are around 3 500 people living in about 10 giant tents across two camps on the end of our peninsula, exposed to the worst of every cold front coming in. The tents are all freezing and wet and smelling of damp now, the children are getting sick, the women are getting desperate and the men are getting angry."

It's been over a week with no word from the government about what's going to happen to them. Absolutely no one in authority has had the decency to come and talk with the elected refugee leadership committee and share ideas about a solution.

The good news is that the RLC has made the front page of the Weekend Argus.

In the afternoon, the RLC drives in convoy to the Baxter Theatre to attend a PANSA fundraiser for the relief of refugees. Backstage with celebrities such as Neo Muyanga, David Kramer and Marc Lottering, the leaders are suddenly nervous.

I gather everyone in a dressing room to discuss their presentation and get them laughing by apeing onstage behaviour. I find it astounding how absolutely everything I've ever learnt - from French to rape counselling skills to how to hold a microphone like a stand-up comedian - is being called upon this week.

It's like my whole life has been preparation for this moment.

At the high point of the show, the RLC file onto stage holding the flags of their countries and stand in a semicircle around the senior leadership: Pastor Alain from the lower camp and the Ameer Mohammed Dadoy from the upper camp. Apendiki, the Women's rep, is wearing a gorgeous berry-coloured outfit and looks like a queen. After each person introduces themselves, Serge reads the Soetwater declaration with such passion and dignity, there isn't a dry eye in the house. The Sheikh is introduced as a volunteer coordinator and gets a standing ovation.

A TAC volunteer comes to invite the RLC to join the march they are organising in the morning on behalf of the civil society coalition. They've already booked the buses for Soetwater. She is not prepared for the ire of the newly inspired collective leadership. Once again, people are planning for the refugees without asking them their opinion. Is a march the most appropriate thing to ask several thousand exhausted and traumatised people on the brink of sickness to do?

(Afterwards Serge is arguing vehemently in the foyer with a left-wing advocate of the rights of the oppressed. It suddenly strikes me how similar this guy is to the self-styled Soetwater camp volunteer manager. They couldn't be further apart on the political spectrum but they are so alike. Both are patronising and inflexible and generally incapable of listening for more than 30 seconds. They both think they know what is best for "these people". Tip: if you want people to fall in with a plan you are making for them, it's best to ask them first what they think of it.)

The 7pm news says the government plans to "re-integrate" refugees back into the townships in eight weeks. I find it interesting that such a precise period has been marked as adequate for the process. SA Rugby has had 14 years to transform and still isn't there, but Du Noon is supposed to sort itself out in eight weeks?

Monday June 2: There is trouble at the camp. I am called from my bed in the pitch dark and drive two leaders back to Soetwater in my pyjamas at 6am. I speak to someone in communications at the premier's office who puts me on to someone else who might be able to get a direct line from the RLC to the premier.

I still can't believe that the onus is on the RLC to initiate dialogue, and that the various tiers of government, with all their resources, can't seem to settle their differences for long enough to discuss a solution. The RLC could teach all of them a thing or two about leadership in a crisis.

Tuesday June 3: I call on my friend in Masiphumelele who tells me "their" Somalis are back working in their spaza shops, but tense. Township locals are muttering that if they are too kind to Somalis they will soon be overrun and there will be no room for their own. She is disappointed in the RLC's attitude towards integration: "They must meet us half way".

My whole professional life is dedicated to promoting integration, but by now I recognise that it is an impracticable policy for the vast majority of the refugees in this camp.

Meanwhile everyone is getting sick. TB and flu are rife, and there is scabies among the children. I call Michelle, a stalwart volunteer, who is croaky, and then Muhamed the spokesperson, whose voice is so squeaky it is impossible to have a conversation with him on the phone. How much longer can we all go on like this?

Wednesday June 4: The 7am news relates how Mr Mbeki apologised to a visiting Nigerian dignitary last night at a presidential banquet. He still hasn't apologised to the foreigners themselves. This is not quiet diplomacy, it is silent. Silent and deadly.

At the camp, they are taking down all the big circus-type tents and replacing them with smaller marquee-type tents with floors. There is a rumour the UN is finally coming. They don't come.

The self-styled camp manager organises a press conference for national and international media - in his church.

The Somalis are very uncomfortable. Their religion does not allow them to set foot in a church. "But Allah will forgive us," says Muhamed. Yes, but will the Somalis forgive the camp management?

I meet Zuliega, a volunteer from Ocean View, who with only five assistants is in charge of feeding around 2 500 Muslims three times a day. She is risking losing her job to do this but will not leave now they have built up trust between the Somalis.

She says she survives on Vitamin B injections. I vow to go and get one. We know we're in for the long haul.

Thursday June 5: I switch the radio on half way through the early morning news bulletin and hear Pastor Alain reading the Soetwater declaration. This is the first time a refugee leader has been given such a clear voice. It's been exactly two weeks since Soetwater started.

If you would like to keep up with the work of the eMzantsi Ubuntu Coalition at the Soetwater camp, subscribe to the blog http://emuc.ilocals.info

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