South Africa--On my way home, I spotted the headline of the Cape Argus newspaper: “Hate rocks Cape dorp.” I stared for a moment in disbelief. With a sinking feeling, I picked it up. The article detailed the latest xenophobic attack in De Doorns, a town around two hours outside Cape Town. Local residents were angry that the Zimbabweans were taking their jobs on the local farms. They say the Zimbabweans are being paid less and so are preferential employees.
To show their displeasure, the community decided to burn down the shacks where the Zimbabweans were staying. The Zimbabweans lost everything. Over 1,000 people became homeless in a day and were subsequently displaced to a camp nearby. Over a year after the widely publicized xenophobic attacks across South Africa in 2008, the situation has simply repeated itself. I am horrified but at the same time, not surprised. This disturbs me all the more. The multitude of political and social issues that led to the attacks last year have not been resolved. The government has merely tried to put a lid on a situation which clearly cannot be contained indefinitely.
One of my Zimbabwean colleagues working in the Welfare Department at Scalabrini went to the camp to see what had happened. She spoke about the devastation people faced after losing everything they had and their simultaneous determination to start again. I felt her pain and also imagined the unspoken truth that this could have just as easily been her. The conditions in the camp topped added to the worry. The toilets weren’t being cleaned regularly and men and women didn’t have separate sleeping quarters, which violated cultural traditions and posed a possible security threat to the women. The role of the police in the whole thing was dubious, once the police commissioner released a statement on the radio that, “This was an isolated incident.” I wondered exactly how many times the police would use this excuse and hope to be believed.
Earlier in the year, Scalabrini’s Advocacy Officer had gone to a meeting where the police had revealed that according to their records there had been no xenophobic incidents in 2009. Yet another ludicrous statistic that makes me wonder how gullible the police think we are. From information given by refugees coming to the centre alone, it’s clear that many of them have been victims of xenophobia since arriving to South Africa. Just a few weeks ago, one of the English students showed up with bandages around his head. He had been attacked and severely beaten by seven young guys at the train station near his home. In the end, they left with his phone. He wasn’t planning to go to the police as he didn’t think it would achieve anything. Another student expressed his sadness at the xenophobic issue, saying we are all Africans of the same blood.
From the data I’ve read, it seems evident that the reaction from the De Doorns community against the Zimbabweans is merely a representation of their dissatisfaction with the government’s delivery of basic services. In addition, they need jobs and they aren’t getting them. The Zimbabweans have simply become the scapegoat.
I have noted a strong determination in many of the refugees I’ve met at Scalabrini. They have a will to survive and are willing to do any work and do it well. More often than not, refugees are a positive addition to our economic system. The problem lies in our limited resources and the fact that while a few people at the top of the political and social ladder are drowning in excess, the majority of the country’s population is still lacking so much. No one knows when the government will remove their rose-tinted spectacles, take a look at reality, and attempt to do something positive about it.
Most of us have no idea what being a refugee entails. We don’t understand the trauma people have suffered in their country of origin, the struggle they go through to get to South Africa, and the difficulty of forging a new life in a foreign country in the midst of xenophobia and resentment. If we did have this understanding, we might be slower to judge people who would benefit from empathy and compassion, and who could benefit our society in more ways than we can imagine.