/ 20 May 2008

‘I do not want to die in South Africa’

The atmosphere in Alexandra is deceptively calm, just more than a week since violence against foreigners first flared in townships around Johannesburg.

Children skip home from school, taxis hoot at potential customers and flashy cars drive past blaring loud music, their drivers bouncing their heads to the beats.

It’s just another sunny afternoon in Alex, and foreigners are taking the opportunity to salvage what is left of their possessions. When the sun goes down, they’ll need to be back in their tents behind the palisade fence of the parking lot of the Alexandra police station.

The parking lot has been turned into a tent city after many foreigners in the township were driven out of their homes by mobs.

Inside the large white tents, men can be seen preparing for the night, placing mattresses and blankets on the tar. Their bags are stowed nearby, packed and ready to go.

Women and children are being housed in empty rooms on the first floor of the police station. Here, the women sit next to their belongings, trying to keep their children occupied. Some have babies on their backs.

They cannot return to their houses and shacks, and many say their identity documents have been lost or stolen. With nowhere to go safely in South Africa, some of the refugees say they are ready to return to Zimbabwe at a moment’s notice.

The women say all they want is a warm, full bath and a little rest.

Sitting on a mattress surrounded by her broken furniture, Cindy Dlamini (30), eight months pregnant, tells how she and her family survived a mob attack on the night of May 11.

“I was sleeping when they stormed into our house with guns, forcing us to move,” she says, puffing up a pillow, trying to keep busy.

Outside, about 30 men are gathered in a tent, watching a TV. They stare at the screen intently, as though they can escape the reality of the situation. They’re watching Leon Schuster’s Oh Shucks, I’m Gatvol.

On the other side of the tent, a group of men is sitting in a rough circle, bags piled around them. They sing listlessly along to a radio playing music from Zimbabwe.

A rustle of excitement moves through the tent. One of the refugees says a Movement for Democratic Change official had spoken of a possible ride to Zimbabwe. The refugees scramble to write down their names on the waiting list.

Police spokesperson Constable Neria Malefetse says “well over 1 000” foreigners are staying in or near the police station.

The afternoon draws on, and a consignment of bread is delivered to the police station. The refugees begin moving to form queues. There are no cooking facilities in the makeshift camp and a number of portable toilets have been set up near the tents.

“We have not had a count of how many people we might have here now. The numbers keep increasing daily. People keep coming in almost daily to seek refuge,” says Malefetse.

Cephas Sithole (35) says he can’t wait to return home to Zimbabwe.

Displaying rows of stitches on his head, he says: “I love this place. I had a job, a house, I was making a living, but now I am too scared to live here. When my son was beaten up and forced to flee, I saw death staring me in the face. I do not want to die in South Africa. I would rather go home and starve to death.”