/ 30 May 2008

Finally, the SA govt moves into action

It took them a while to wake up and stop arguing about whose fault it was, but almost three weeks after xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals began, authorities in the worst-affected provinces have moved into action.

Reintegration is the new game plan of the national government, Gauteng and the Western Cape — both of which this week were declared official disaster areas — and of the Democratic Alliance-led city of Cape Town.

After accompanying Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa on a two-day walkabout of some of the townships worst hit by the violence, provincial spokesperson Thabo Masebe said plans to patch up broken communities are at the top of the provincial government’s list of priorities.

In Cape Town, mayor Helen Zille said reintegration is “crucial” and called on the South African National Defence Force to be part of a “peacekeeping force” that will “reassure people that their rights will be protected”.

A senior African National Congress member from the Western Cape who is involved in talks with local leaders and foreign nationals put it more bluntly: “Foreign nationals have two choices — either they go back home or they stay here and be reintegrated. There is no other option.”

The most immediate concern is what to do with the hundreds of thousands of exhausted, traumatised and mostly penniless people. Provincial decisions to declare certain places disaster areas help by freeing up access to government emergency funds and allow the involvement of organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Zille, who estimates that the violence will cost the city R100-million just to provide emergency relief, has specifically asked for UN assistance.

New shelters

Thousands of Gauteng refugees who have been sheltered in churches, community halls and police stations are about to be moved to better shelters.

“We will be moving about 20 000 people to temporary tent shelters in the next few days,” said Masebe. The exact location has not been finalised.

He emphasised that no one will be allocated a house and shelters will not be “of a luxury standard”, but they will meet international emergency relief standards. “They will be adequately equipped with the basics such as sanitation and water, and the Department of Health will provide mobile clinics.”

With the human disaster unfolding, reintegration remains mostly a “medium- to long-term plan”, in Masebe’s words.

This week saw suggestions of possible strategies emerge from different leaders and departments.

When Shilowa took to the East and West Rand on foot he was always careful to acknowledge the plight of local South Africans and emphasise that their rights would not be compromised.

Talking to residents in the Siyahlala informal settlement in Randfontein, the premier’s attention to local concerns and complaints earned him cheers and the crowd’s assurance that there would be no more violence against foreigners in their area.

In Tsakane on Monday, he told crowds: “Those South Africans that may be living with their neighbours or relatives after they lost everything won’t be ignored. They need to receive the same humanitarian assistance as the displaced foreigners.”


Masebe said though reintegration will not happen overnight, visits such as the premier’s help the government understand the communities’ point of view.

“We will be looking to change the mindset of the community over time and we propose the involvement of government and other state organs to work together to educate people and get their buy-in for peaceful reintegration,” he said.

The Ministry of Safety and Security came up with a role model for successful reintegration, using the example of Masiphumelele in the Western Cape, where violence over the years has been largely stabilised through a process of healing and reconciliation.

After fresh attacks drove foreigners out of Masiphumelele recently, the community apologised publicly and invited the immigrants back in.

But, according to one ANC official, there is “not a township or a dorp [village] in the Western Cape unaffected by the wave of xenophobic hatred”.

Zille and Premier Ebrahim Rasool continue to set a bad example by squabbling about how best to deal with the crisis.

Both agree that eventual reintegration is the key. However, attempts to facilitate the safe return of reluctant and suspicious foreign nationals to local communities have not met with much success yet.

This week, a group of ANC leaders was chased from a hall occupied by refugees.

Said one Tanzanian: “We told them to go away because we don’t trust them. They represent this government, which has done very little to educate their people about who and what we are. The very people who want to kill us are members of the ANC … how can we trust them?”

In the Soetwater refugee camp near Kommetjie, a group of Somali refugees turned on one of their countrymen who tried to persuade people to reintegrate. He had to be escorted from the camp by police.

KZN drags feet over relief efforts

While religious organisations and NGOs have reacted swiftly to the humanitarian crisis created by the displacement of an estimated 3 000 foreigners in KwaZulu-Natal, government has been far slower to react, writes Niren Tolsi.

In Durban, where the majority of refugees are now living in church and community halls around the city, the Ethekwini municipality’s disaster management branch has been labelled “a disaster itself”.

So says Yasmin Rajah, project manager for the Mennonite Central Committee, the local partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Most of the tents and food for the refugees have come through private donations and NGOs,” she said on Thursday.

“There doesn’t seem to be a proper disaster management process and we don’t get a sense that anybody [in the city] is willing to do it,” she said.

Anglican Bishop of KwaZulu-Natal Rubin Phillip, who has been a driving force behind relief for refugees in the city, said his “main concern” was official inertia regarding reintegration or repatriation of foreigners.

“Nobody has been notified of plans to help these people get on with their lives,” Phillip said.

“The city’s position appears to be one of out of sight, out of mind. Once people were moved from police stations to churches and community halls, the municipality appeared to wash its hands of them.”

City spokesperson Eric Appelgren admitted “the reality is that there is no concrete programme”. However, Appelgren said the SAPS and Metro Police were monitoring hot spots and that issues of repatriation and reintegration were being looked into.

Appelgren said R700 000 had been set aside by the municipality to “counter” xenophobia by engaging communities through local policing forums and ward councillors.

“We want to ensure that at an emotional and psychological level we make people realise that we’re all Africans and we need to take care of one another.”

But, on the streets of Durban, foreign nationals are becoming increasingly afraid for their safety.

At a 100-strong protest held outside the Diakonia Centre in the CBD on Thursday, refugees described daily experiences of xenophobic intimidation.

Elvis Chuma is a Congolese national who has lived in this country for five years. He believes a culture of impunity has been tipped over the edge by recent xenophobia.

“We have always had to live with [xenophobia] in your country, but now we are scared because the people feel they can hurt us and get away with it.

“I was on a taxi yesterday, it was a R3 trip and I gave the conductor R5. He didn’t give me change and when I asked him, he told me ‘suka ni makwerekwere [go foreigner]’. The whole taxi laughed at me.”