Foreign nationals rendered destitute by xenophobic violence in KwaZulu-Natal are trapped in a stalemate with government officials over whether it is safe for them to reintegrate into local communities.
While the eThekwini municipality is refusing to look after refugees and has asked them to return to their homes, the almost 400 people still living in churches and refugee lodges in Durban feel their lives are still in danger.
”No, no, no, that place is still too dangerous for me to go back there. They see a makwerekwere [foreigner] and they will try to hurt me. My friend has just been released from hospital after the operations for his stabbing in June. I don’t want to be stabbed,” says Luundo Asende, a Congolese barber who used to live in Mpumalanga township in Hammarsdale outside Durban.
Asende is one of almost 200 people living at the Venture Africa lodge in Durban’s central business district. The majority of refugees were moved here last week by the municipality after churches, running out of food and money, started depositing refugees on the steps of City Hall.
Uncertainty mingles with the smell of too many people living too close together at Venture Africa. The municipality is no longer paying the R20-per-person-per-night rental here and ”the group has been requested to find alternative accommodation”, according to Billy Keeves of the city’s disaster management unit.
Keeves downplayed xenophobia in the province saying the last reported incident ”affecting foreign nationals occurred in the middle of June in Pongola [in northern KwaZulu-Natal] — There were doubts whether that matter was crime or xenophobia motivated.”
The disaster management unit’s Lungisa Manzi told journalists this week that ”no xenophobic incidents have been reported to us, so we believe they are in no danger. Now is the time for them to reintegrate back into society.”
But Amsi Wilondga, a Congolese national, asks whether he or one of his family must lose their lives before government officials realise that xenophobia remains a threat.
”I tried to go to my work in a taxi and the driver didn’t want to give me change for my R20. The trip was R4,50 and when I asked for change he revealed his gun to me and said ‘Do you want to lose your life or do you want to lose your money?’ I am losing my appetite to live here,” said Wilondga.
He added that after almost two months, he had lost his job and had no money to pay rent: ”Government expectations for people to return as if everything is normal to their jobs and what used to be their homes is out of touch with our suffering.”
”There are still about 400 people who have not returned to their countries of origin or their homes so for us there still is a crisis and we believe that it’s not over but [government] seem to think it is,” said Aslam Khan of the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs.
Khan said a planned meeting with the various provincial departments to discuss the displaced foreign nationals and plans to set up a camp ”had been cancelled”.
According to Khan churches are ”initiating their own reintegration programmes and speaking to communities. Civil society and faith-based organisations have been at the frontline of this in Durban,” he said.
Also weighing in is the South African Human Rights Commission, which has written to provincial and local governments highlighting the urgency of the situation, the organisation’s Tanjua Munnoo said.
At Venture Africa, meanwhile, foreign nationals are, despite the eviction notice from the landlord, refusing to move: ”We didn’t come here on our own, the government sent us here and they must tell us what the next step is,” said Wilondga.