Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Overdue post - written a couple of weeks ago

I am a white South African. A couple of weeks ago I received an sms from a family member along the lines of: “Rand is plummeting, xenophobia is spreading. Time to get your passports ready and leave this place.”

At that stage the xenophobic attacks seemed very distant to me. I am based in the Cape and they were happening in Joburg. They may as well been happening on another continent. With all the bad news that the media loves to throw at us, I’ve become selective in my reading and this was one of the stories I had selected not to follow.

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 Cape townships. The photos of the attacks in Johannesburg chilled me to the core. The rioters, dancing through the streets, brandishing weapons, had jubilant smiles on their faces.

I sat in my office and wept. For Anton and his family who had fled Zimbabwe so that they could have a future and were now again forced to flee for their lives. And for all the people in the same situation. I wept in disgust at how South Africans were treating people who are desperate. For the first time in my life I was truly ashamed to be South African.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. the openness of these people – they were friendly and polite and without anger. It boggles me.
  3. the desperation of these people – I saw two men fighting over a Pep blanket – you’d have to be pretty desperate.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 Zimbabwe situation, SA politics and all of it makes us feel powerless and frustrated. The sentiment that is shared among the volunteers I have spoken to is that we all feel alive. There is no part of us that wants to leave South Africa like that sms suggested. We don’t rejoice in the xenophobia – we mourn it with Our Guys, but we rejoice at the opportunity to be part of the solution. To be relevant. To be real. To get our hands dirty and show people love.


sweets said...

extremely well written... i share all your thoughts...

let's hope for a better tomorrow :)

Tamara said...

Wow... AMAZING post.

Glugster said...

Ditto to Tamara.