Western Cape Responds to Xenophobic Attacks: Building a Society We Can be Proud Of

Wednesday, 28 May, 2008 - 12:02

By Margot Saffer and Carly TanurAs of Tuesday 27 May 2008, there are 20 000 displaced foreign nationals being sheltered in 65 sites across the Western Cape province. The number of those seeking shelte

By Margot Saffer and Carly Tanur

As of Tuesday 27 May 2008, there are 20 000 displaced foreign nationals being sheltered in 65 sites across the Western Cape province. The number of those seeking shelter differ greatly from site to site as does the nature of the housing. Communities have opened their halls, mosques and churches to provide shelter and amenities to survivors of xenophobic attacks and those fleeing in fear of being attacked.

Four major places of safety have been set up by the City of Cape Town: in Silverstroom (near Koeberg), Youngsfield (Wynberg), Soetwater (Noordhoek), and Harmony Park (Strand). In all, there are 80 tents housing 8 000 displaced people. Conditions at these sites are dire. Fatima, a Somali leader likened their treatment to that of ‘dogs’. Due to bad nutrition and poor sanitation, there have been outbreaks of diarrhoea and because the close proximity of people, there are fears that other illness such as TB will spread. This overcrowding has also contributed to conflict between various national groups. It was shocking to find South African citizens among the displaced. Non-Xhosa migrant workers and families coming from other areas of the country like Limpopo or Free State have also been made unwelcome by the communities during this time.

There are unconfirmed reports that the City wants to establish two more such large-scale camps and of people being forced to move there. Refugees are fearful because they have not been informed about the process and are unsure what will happen next. Once inside, they are allegedly prevented from leaving. People have been tagged in some of these sites. NGOs are against the camps because the sites are far from workplaces and schools. People feel abandoned and being isolated from their access to education and income – especially at month-end – makes them even more vulnerable. Many of them are on or near beaches, where winter cold and wet conditions contribute to growing health risks.

Families have been separated across as many as three sites. Even within one place of safety, men, women and children have to stay in separate tents, which is proving painful for families that need each other for emotional support through this crisis.

The major issue that is an obstacle to an effective co-ordinated effort and perpetuating the lack of trust is the failure of the City of Cape Town and Western Cape province to put their politics aside and sit together to tackle the growing issue at hand. The City, Province, and NGOs have approached the disaster with separate strategies, often leading to confusion, resentment, and paralysis. Only on the morning of 26 May were there signs of joint efforts around health. There is also still no funding from the government, a fact that MSF has called a “scandal”.

Fundraising and aid efforts have come from the civil sector, spearheaded by NGOs such as Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Aids Law Project (ALP) and Black Sash, and religious organisations such as His People Church, Mustadafin Foundation and Habonim Dror South Africa. The relief effort volunteered by Capetonians has been phenomenal and has been lauded by these organisations and the media. Having already heard the news in Gauteng, Capetonians were prepared and quick to mobilise.

Reports indicate that the expression of xenophobia has been different in the Western Cape than it has been in Gauteng. The violence and barbarism to the extent witnessed in Gauteng has thankfully not taken place in the Cape. It has, however, manifested here in the form of physical attacks and looting of businesses in the townships. Those injured in areas such as Du Noon, where one of the four initial attacks took place, were people who lived in their shops. In Du Noon, 42 arrests were made and suspects appeared at the Cape Town Magistrate Court on Monday.

From the profile of those arrested, it seems that the majority of the attacks have been youth of school-going age. A march to take place 28 May at Khayelitsha Magistrate Court has been organised by other members of the youth community to protest against both xenophobia and the criminality of their cohorts. There has been a province-wide call for civic education on human rights issues for the youth and Mamelani is one NGO that is working on an awareness-raising campaign in schools. A further frightening finding has been that middle-aged women have also been among the looters caught stealing food.

The Cape Town civil sector has apologised for the hostility and is proud of the Masiphumelele community. On Sunday, the community as a whole apologised to the foreign nationals who had been living among them and asked them to please return to their homes. This was following a call from religious and community leaders and representatives of the ANC in the area to ask and remember: “Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going?” Stolen property was retrieved and returned to owners. On Monday, some of the displaced refugees returned to the community.

Other such efforts are beginning in certain areas in Khayelitsha and Zweletemba. At this stage, however, community leaders cannot guarantee the safety of those who return, nor are refugees ready to be reintegrated yet. Though this is the eventual goal, all are aware that it needs to be approached with caution, slowly and sensitively. The UN Human Rights Commission representative, Arvind Gupta, outlined three options from here on: repatriation into countries of origin, reintegration back into communities, or resettlement in a third country. The last option did not seem necessary in this situation and has only been called for in 0.5% of similar situations.

There are those foreign nationals who do want to return home. On behalf of refugees sleeping outside Caledon Police Station, Congolese national, Victor, asked, “If people are taking guns and machetes with the intention to kill we can’t call them xenophobic attacks - is this not war?”  Some refugees are asking for severance pay for the years of work they have put into building South Africa. While some will be satisfied with the South African government acknowledging their lack of responsibility in protecting them through years of discrimination, others are demanding compensation for property stolen or destroyed. Somalians feel let down and betrayed by the South African government and have called on the United Nations to intervene. They refuse to take aid from South Africa and are asking for safe passage back to Somalia. The UN has also been asked for funds on a large scale and to help with the re-documentation process of refugees whose status documents have been lost or stolen in the disaster. Home affairs have also been urged to speedily reissue papers.

The UN will hopefully provide safe passage, but is opting to encourage reintegration. This can only be done if the underlying causes of this disaster are addressed. In a public meeting held on 27 May at St George’s Cathedral, speakers outlined issues such as poverty and joblessness. Others spoke of tolerance of violence: we again and again tolerate rape and murder and this culture of tolerance has led to the extreme brutality witnessed in the past few weeks. Speaking for the South African Council of Churches, Reverend Vernon Rose insisted this come to and end and we stop tolerating all criminality of human against human.

All speakers highlighted that we have an obligation to uphold the core values of our constitution: equality, human rights for all, and human dignity. Chief Justice Pius Langa concluded his moving address by saying that only if we actively work to uphold those rights, can we claim that we are full citizens of South Africa.

- Carly Tanur is a Director at Mamelani Projects and Margot Saffer works as a Freelance Writer.

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