/ 30 October 2008

‘The endings of new beginnings’

For many South Africans, the global economic crisis and high jinks in the ruling party have created a perception that ”the sky is falling on our heads”.

For the thousands who were beaten, raped and forced to flee their homes in xenophobic attacks, the sky fell in five months ago. Now that the public outrage has died down and media agendas have skipped on to the next big story, it is almost as if they didn’t exist at all.

But for a group of art counsellors who worked with the refugees at the Strydom Park camp on the East Rand, forgetting is not an option. The Art Therapy Centre has created a powerful exhibition that records both the events and the aftermath of the xenophobic violence.

For many refugees, their displacement was not the first time they had lost a home, not the first time they had fled from violence; and counsellors had to deal with pain many times compounded, using the only tools they had — listening. ”They needed houses and medicine and clothes. I could just sit and listen and show that I understand,” says counsellor Ntombi Sangweni. ”I was like a sponge — somebody has to take the anger.”

Having lost not only their houses and communities but physical proof of their identity such as passports and birth certificates, many refugees felt rootless and adrift. This presented a challenge for the counsellors: ”I did not know whether to talk about new beginnings, or endings of new beginnings,” says counsellor SB Nhlapo.

During the protracted process of closing down the camps the refugees became increasingly anxious and the counsellors — as the only service providers left in camp — bore the brunt of their anger and fear. ”The frustration was overwhelming for all of us,” says Nhlapo. ”I saw their helplessness and felt it deep in my own body.”

View the photo gallery

The counsellors, who compiled long lists of cellphone numbers of refugees in the camps, phoned everyone on the list to invite them to attend the opening of the exhibition. Having been rendered homeless once again, the refugees have lost their foothold in the city and slipped away: only four of the cellphone numbers are still in operation.

As Nhlapo put it, on leaving the camp for the final time: ”I drove away. Am I away? I will forever think of them.”

The exhibition, at the Old Fort, Constitution Hill, is on show from 9am to 4pm, Monday to Saturday, until November 5