“….Africa Day in Soetwater – The bad news

As we drove into the refugee camp just before 10am on Sunday morning,
the fog hung heavy over Soetwater, like some smoking post-apocalyptic
movie set. But this was not Vietnam, or Pearl Harbour – this was Cape
Town on Africa Day 2008. Six huge drafty tents emerged from the gloom,
and suddenly we saw vast numbers of people, queuing up for a meagre
meal from the makeshift soup kitchen, or hanging around looking
completely lost. Such a beautiful setting, by the side of the ocean;
yet such a site of horror as we began to hear the stories of people
who’d arrived there from across the city.

There was Alvino from Angola, whose brother was killed on Friday, and
who was so traumatised by the guilt of leaving the body to save
himself, he could barely speak. There was Maria* from the Congo, who
was raped on Thursday, didn’t know where her teenaged son was and just
wanted to be given a pair of panties and a place to sleep. There was
Noor-Ali from Somalia, a very smart young man in a stylish leather
jacket, who had spent years working his way up from cleaning cars for
change to owning his own business, only to have absolutely everything
he owned snatched away from him in minutes. They, and most of the
estimated 1500 people there, were in an extreme state of shock.

Who was there to comfort and reassure them?

Stalwart volunteers from Ocean View Baptist Church and Living Hope were
already tackling the most urgent needs of feeding people and attending
to the sick. But there was a complete vacuum of any central authority.
The police were waiting for orders, and seemed to have no idea what to
do beyond patrolling the perimeter. As more volunteers arrived to help,
there was no one to direct their energies, no one with a plan, no one
even with an appropriate registration document ready to distribute in
order to get a handle on the situation.

Disaster management were doing what they could, which wasn’t much. A
official from the province explained to me that they had staff trained
to deal with a local disaster – but not a whole outbreak of them across
the province, from Knysna to the south peninsula – and there just
weren’t enough people or resources available to cope. The poor man who
had been designated ‘in charge’ was a housing officer, untrained in
crisis management or trauma counselling, and he was doing a sterling
job in impossible circumstances.

As we stood there wondering where to start, two more buses arrived,
offloading yet more shell-shocked people. Tensions amongst those who
had been waiting 24 hours already without a single word from the
authorities on what was going to happen to them began to mount. Sharp
words were exchanged between Somalians and Congolese, each feeling more
vulnerable than the other. Making an attempt to understand their
concerns, in my inadequate French (there wasn’t a single translator
available), I was led to understand by a group of about 50 angry,
frustrated and articulate people that many of the refugees have
survived genocide once already in Rwanda and DRC, and are just not
prepared to risk it again.

Unlike the foreign residents of Masiphumelele, who were evacuated by
the police on Friday as a precaution, these people – from Phillipi,
from Du Noon, and from Khayelitsha – had been violently chased from
their homes. They do not trust South Africans anymore. They want to
leave this country. They do not trust the government. Why should they –
the government had 2 weeks’ notice to make a plan to safeguard them,
and they didn’t. They do not believe the local police can protect them,
and fear a mob coming down and driving them into the beautiful sea.

In the late afternoon, the Premier finally arrived, ready for a
triumphant photo opp as he planned to announce the Masiphumelele
community leaders’ magnificent mobilisation to restore the homes and
property of those foreigners expelled last week. His staff had no idea
the majority of the refugees were not from Masiphumelele and were
completely unprepared for the hostile reception he got. But he
responded well, sitting down cross-legged on the ground, first with
Congolese leaders and then with the Somalians, taking the time to
listen to their fears and their written lists of demands. He promised
that the UNHCR would be here by tomorrow, that their concerns would be
respected and their opinions consulted.

He left as the sun began to set and the cold fog began to creep back
in. If by the time you read this, there are still people at Soetwater
who don’t know what the government’s plan is, we should all be ashamed.
Ashamed enough to stand up and act without them. There are pregnant
mothers and children sleeping tonight on cardboard on the freezing
floor whose only crime was to be born elsewhere on our continent. Happy
Africa Day.

* not her real name

NB Reassuringly, local councillors Felicity Purchase and Nicki
Holderness were on the ground as we left last night, local police were
doing the best they could, and bakkie loads of officials had started to
arrive… watch this space.

The Art of Living Foundation is offering trauma relief programmes in
both Masiphumelele and Soetwater – contact Candi Horgan on 082 561 2879
for information. They would like to thank Cafe Roux, Noordhoek, for
lending them their tent.

If you have food, clothes, blankets, heaters or baby supplies to
donate, please take them to the Sun Valley Pick’n’Pay for distribution
to those in need.

If you would like to volunteer an hour of your time, email
sam@samp.co.za or leave your contact details on 021 789 1665. We will
call you if and when we can use you.

Sam Pearce

from the office of the eMzantsi Carnival project
Harlequin Foundation
creating a common culture through carnival……”

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One Response to “●CAPE TOWN XENOPHOBIA – BAD NEWS: Soetwater”



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