●Cape Town: Refugee camps – Rasool & Zille at it again – Petty political squabbling?


12 June 2008 11:59
by Tracey Saunders

Ebrahim Rasool
The Western Cape government and the City of Cape Town have locked horns over how to handle fugitives from xenophobic violence. Pearlie Joubert spoke to both sides: mayor Helen Zille and Premier Ebrahim Rasool.

Helen Zille
Why are you refusing to open the Sea Point civic or other facilities in town for refugees? Are you keeping the refugees out of white areas?
Nonsense. Fifteen halls are open across Cape Town. We cannot open more halls. We don’t have the capacity to provide all the services and additional resources required to run community halls as refugee centres; we’re stretched to the limit. The province declared the xenophobic violence a provincial disaster, to release additional resources. Major provincial and national facilities are totally unused. Nowhere in the world is a crisis of displaced people left to local government.

You say putting people in community centres risks a xenophobic backlash. Aren’t the politicians pandering to discriminatory views?
Local residents are getting increasingly irritated at the municipal resources we have put into dealing with the refugee crisis in comparison with the extensive needs of the hundreds of thousands of poor Capetonians. This increases tensions. The relief effort for displaced people will probably cost the city R100-million.

Why did you open the refugee camps?
The United Nations strongly condemned them.
I met the UN again last night and they certainly did not condemn the camps. They again commended us for our swift response and our adaptation of holiday resorts into refugee centres.

Have you and Ebrahim Rasool spoken about the city’s crisis?

Rasool says you walked out of a meeting in Du Noon?
Rasool’s version of an alleged meeting in Du Noon is pure fiction. On the night the violence broke out, I was dealing with the practicalities of the crisis — opening halls, and getting supplies from disaster management. It is impossible to walk out of a briefing that you do not attend. Rasool is overseas and has been for about two weeks. The province and the city worked well together until the province’s unilateral directive to remove the Soetwater people against their will and their court interdict, under false pretences, to force us to open all our halls.

The Treatment Action Campaign accuses you of being callous and racist.
The TAC is misguided. The root of the problem is that many people do not agree with the province’s approach of enforced reintegration. They want to be repatriated or relocated to a third country. This is why the people of Soetwater refused to get on to the buses to be taken to community halls. Local government cannot deal with people’s demands to be repatriated or relocated; only the UN can. I have met the UN and they have agreed to assist in the voluntary repatriation of 2 000 refugees.

The provincial and national governments insist people must be reintegrated. How?
We fully support efforts to reintegrate people who want to return to their homes. However, many foreign nationals don’t want to go back to the communities [or] remain in South Africa. We have to face this fact, not force reintegration on everyone. The UN exists to intervene and deal with such crises. The national government must formally request the UN to do so; it has the necessary resources, experience and expertise.

Ebrahim Rasool
Why haven’t you asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist with humanitarian support and refugees who want to leave the country?
We’ve been working with the UNHCR from the outset. I visited the Soetwater camp on May 25 and, faced with demands, I promised the displaced people that a UNHCR representative would visit them shortly. The UNHCR’s Arvin Gupta visited the camp that evening and we’ve worked closely with the UN family ever since.

What’s your plan for Soetwater and other camps set up by the city?
The provincial government advised the city not to set up these massive beach camps, but they proceeded against our advice. Soetwater has been condemned by the UNHCR, the South African Human Rights Commission, the TAC, the Black Sash. Given the threats of mass suicide, hunger strikes, that the leadership of that camp has consistently obstructed our attempts to reach agreement on the way forward, Soetwater’s continued existence is untenable. We’re planning a two-step move, to a reception centre and then reintegration.

The Caledon Square and other refugee groups want to be located away from where the violence took place. Can the province assist?
More than 7 000 have already returned to their communities and reintegration is taking place on a daily basis. We believe this is the only sustainable solution.

What about compensating the victims of violence?
Resettlement assistance is being discussed with the UN and other donors.

Reintegration doesn’t seem to be working well
There are many examples of communities where reintegration has been taking place successfully — Masiphumelele, Hermanus, Knysna, Paarl, Stellenbosch …

Have you and Helen Zille even discussed the crisis?
The mayor refused to attend a meeting with the province and city on the first night of the violence because I was in the meeting. She has on three previous occasions refused to share a platform with me.

Isn’t this a continuation of petty political squabbling?
Of course we need to work together. I called a meeting of the premier’s coordinating forum with all mayors after a provincial disaster was declared and we agreed on a three-pronged strategy. Zille did not attend, but she was represented by councillor Dan Plato and others.

Can you force people to reintegrate? Will you close Soetwater?

The camps are inhumane and, in Soetwater’s case, unsafe. Displaced people need to be closer to their communities to continue to work and so that their children can attend school, while we work towards reintegration. The government and NGOs are determined to do what’s best for everyone concerned, and we’ve deployed conflict-resolution specialists to assist with reintegration.

Zille argues that filling community centres may provoke a xenophobic backlash. Your response?
We fought for a South Africa that belongs to all who live in it. The overwhelming majority of our people do not support discrimination. Leaders have a responsibility to support principles, even if it may appear unpopular in some quarters in the short term.

Tracey Saunders
Fax: 086 611-7167

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