I am a white South African. A couple of weeks ago I received an sms from a family member along the lines of: “
Jump forward a week. I’m at work and a friend calls asking for the telephone number of another friend. She is frantic.
Our mutual friend, Anton, is a Zimbabwean. He met my husband a few years ago while selling goods at the side of the road and since then they’ve been good friends. He is now the car guard at our church and everyone loves him because he is the friendliest, happiest person most of us have ever met. On Christmas eve last year his wife and one year old child finally managed to cross the border after many unsuccessful attempts. My friend had phoned me asking for his wife’s number. Xenophobia had spread to Lwandle near Somerset West, where Anton and his family live.
My friend had spoken to him earlier that day and now his phone was off. We tried to get hold of him without much success. My friend spoke to Xhosa residents in the township and they warned that things were getting very bad there. The attackers were after loot and so if he leaves, he should leave bare-handed.
I spent the next while scouring the internet for news on the situation in the
I sat in my office and wept. For Anton and his family who had fled
We soon heard from Anton. He was a worried man and wanted to get his family out. My husband went and fetched him, he left everything behind. Later on, the police gave them the go ahead to return for his possessions. My husband said that when he went in all was calm and he couldn’t believe how quickly things changed – by the time they left, maybe 20 minutes later, a crowd surrounded their vehicle shouting at them saying “You are lucky you are going now. Tonight we would take your stuff”. The crowd was comprised mostly of school kids.
Soon sms’s were flooding my phone. People looking for accommodation for their employees. Desperate. Our church sent out an sms inviting us to help out that night at a factory warehouse which had been opened to refugees. Within hours the warehouse was full and our church building was opened.
The building is still under construction. It has no hot water and the kitchen is pretty sparse. The upstairs area – which is the biggest at this point and will eventually become the Sunday school – would be where people would sleep. The floor is a concrete slab.
By the time I arrived there on Friday night, everyone – about 400 at that stage had been fed. There was an area set up for receiving donations and the process of assigning task teams for kitchen, sanitation and security was well underway.
At about 11pm we started to register people. By this stage many people were trying to sleep. But we had to have some idea of numbers and also some families had been split and this would make it easier to reunite them. Each person got a ticket with their number on.
We finished at about 1.30 that night. During the time I saw several things:
- the patience of these people – bone tired but willing to get out of a bed at our asking and stand in a queue slowed by miscommunication because we said it was important.
- the openness of these people – they were friendly and polite and without anger. It boggles me.
- the desperation of these people – I saw two men fighting over a Pep blanket – you’d have to be pretty desperate.
- the caring of these people – they look out for each other and not just their fellow countrymen. They look out for anyone in need whether they speak that language or not.
- the manners of these people – many of them have come to ask for a broom to clean a bathroom, or simply found one themselves. They collect rubbish of their own initiative.
“These people” have by now become “our refugees” or “our guys”. We are getting to know some of them like Marshall who’s about 5 and is cute as anything and his dad Moses. Or Shakespeare, or Prince or Lovemore or Nomore.
By Saturday evening over 700 people had registered at the building. A fierce soccer match occupied much of the afternoon followed by a warm meal. People are tired, many of them left the townships with nothing and no idea of what the future holds and yet they maintain their dignity.
It is now Sunday evening. This morning I helped with breakfast. The amount of food, blankets and clothing that has come in is phenomenal. The number of people who have arrived with their sleeves rolled up ready to help is incredible. There are volunteers there 24 hours a day with a real smile on their face.
WHY??? Why would people – some of whom I’ve never seen before Saturday – pitch up to help people who they’ve never even met?
For the same reason that I want to be there whether I need to be or not. It is because for the first time we have a real opportunity to DO SOMETHING. To actually be a tangible part of the solution. We read about xenophobia, the