For thousands of Zimbabweans who flee their troubled country, the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg is the only home they know.
After five years with up to 2 000 people a night sleeping on pews, floors and stairwells, the church is now overcrowded, filthy and reeking due to inadequate sanitation — decidedly not the image that South Africa wants to present during the Soccer World Cup.
- Watch our video tour of the church, and hear what the refugees have to say.
Claims that children were sexually abused by a teacher and fellow migrants emerged late last year, triggering a new drive by authorities to close down the church — though no one has put forward any alternatives for the homeless foreigners.
“It is not my fault that I’m here,” said Nokuthula Ndlovu, a 29-year-old Zimbabwean mother of one.
“Home is best, I was supposed to be in my country but because of the difficulties, I can’t be. If they send me back to Zimbabwe, I will die,” said Ndlovu, who has lived in the church since 2008.
Bishop Paul Verryn, who has made a mission of sheltering migrants at the church, acknowledged the grim living conditions but said the church had never turned away a homeless person in 20 years.
“We desperately need government support, we are not set up against them,” he said. “We are vulnerable. We struggle on a daily basis. We need vigorous cooperation with police as well.”
Instead, he says the government has repeatedly sent in police on “military-like” raids styled as anti-crime swoops, which the bishop says are really a clean-up campaign to remove homeless from the city centre before the World Cup in June.
About 80% of the migrants sheltering here are Zimbabweans who came to South Africa in search of jobs, part of an exodus that has seen up to three million Zimbabweans leave their country over the last decade.
But in a country with 25% unemployment, they have not received a warm welcome from locals.
The church has tried to help the migrants find a better life, setting up workshops to teach adults computer literacy and crafts, while 450 children attend school there during the day.
“It is good, but the facilities, it’s not good — no desk, no chairs and stuff like that,” said Diana, a 13-year-old pupil.
Abuse of children
Provincial health official Molebatsi Bopape in October tried to close down the church, which she described as a disaster and a health hazard.
“That place is not conducive for people to live there, and it’s an open secret that there is abuse of children there,” she said.
It’s the reports of sexual abuse that have done the most to dim the reputation of the church, which many Zimbabweans see as a beacon of hope in an often hostile land.
Verryn said he had called police several times to investigate the claims, but said police had shown little interest in the church beyond forcing people off the surrounding pavements.
“Criminality in this place is the last thing I want. People are far too vulnerable and we want to empower people. We don’t want to drive people into reinforcements of their fears,” he said.
But the accusations fly both ways: provincial authorities say Verryn has refused to cooperate with social workers who wanted to move the children from the church to safer shelters.
A court appointed a child rights lawyer to safeguard the children, but that hasn’t eased the tensions.
Methodist authorities have also criticised the bishop, saying the church was never meant as a permanent shelter for so many people.
Tension between Verryn, local government and the church leadership reached the boiling point as he was suspended last Tuesday by Methodist authorities, who have declined to reveal the exact reasons for their action.
He has been charged with “transgressing the laws and discipline of the church”, with a disciplinary hearing set for Monday, said church lawyer Bongani Khoza.
People depending on the church for shelter say despite the controversey, they have nowhere else to turn.
“It’s not an ideal situation for people to stay in this place. It is only that there is no other option. There is no other place that they can go and stay,” said Evans Tendai Kuntonda, who lives at the church.
“This is the only shelter that has opened doors for them. The government of this country doesn’t want to admit that this is a crisis.” – AFP