Thousands of families have been forced into refugee camps across South Africa, with some of the biggest in the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, housing up to 1 500 people at a time. Photo: Saras Arjunan
It is extraordinary what seemingly ordinary people can achieve in the face of a crisis. When African foreign nationals were forced to look violence, death and hatred in the eye as anti-immigrant violence swept across South Africa for over a month, they demonstrated strength, resilience and survival.
For Emile Kazango and his wife “Kitty”, this meant continuing to take care of their children in the only way they have ever known how.
“We love our children, they deserve the best from us, so we had no choice but to run,” Kazango explained. Days after the violence first broke out at the end of March, they were forced from their home in Thokoza (Gauteng) and landed up at a shelter in Randfontein. The couple have two daughters and one son, who is only five-months-old.
“Taking care of the baby has been hard,” Kitty admitted, as she sat folding the small pile of clothes on the bed before her. This is almost all that the family now owns, after their house was set on fire and most of their belongings burned. “We rely on donations from family and people who come to the shelter.”
Baby blankets, nappies, baby grows and formula have all been donated to them by the shelter, but only until they can get back on their own feet. For the sake of their children, they have tried to keep things as normal as possible, and prefer not to remember what happened when they had to up and run.
“It’s easier for them,” Kazango said, as he kicked a soccer ball outside with one of his daughters. The child looked happy and healthy considering everything she had been through, but will not let her father out of her sight, afraid that if she does, she will never see him again. “This is what it is like now, our children are afraid if they are not near us.”
A repeat of the 2008 attacks
The family, like many of the immigrants here, are from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and first came to South Africa in the hope of escaping the corruption and conflict back home. In 2002, they fled to Johannesburg with other relatives and lived a good, comfortable life for several years, until the 2008 xenophobic attacks began.
The tragedy is that for thousands of foreign nationals, this is not their first time experiencing the wrath of hateful and anti-immigrant South Africans.
In May of 2008 tens of thousands of migrants were displaced and over 60 people died, amid mass looting and destruction of foreign-owned homes and business across the country. In the seven years that have followed since, attacks on foreign nationals have continued, with the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in SA reporting that in 2011, one person a week - on average - was killed.
“It is clear that people here no longer want us”
This time, in 2015, the scales tipped and at least seven people were killed, in one foul swoop.
Three South Africans, Thabo Owen Mzobe, Ayanda Dlamini and Petros Dlamini were shot and killed in seperate areas in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province. Marcus Natus, from Ethiopia, was killed in a Molotov cocktail bombing in Umlazi (KZN), “Muvo”, a Zimbabwean man, in a mob attack near Chatsworth, Mozambician Dava Sebaastio north of Durban (KZN) and Shaofic Shaof Ul Alam, from Bangladesh, was shot dead in Pietermaritzburg (also in KZN).
“It is clear that people here no longer want us,” said Chance Embaye, originally from Eritrea. He remembered how the attacks in 2008 destroyed his life for years to come. His permit expired several months ago and he wanted to go to Pretoria to apply for a new one, but when this latest round of violence broke out, found himself seeking refuge in the Central Methodist Church.
During the violence, he and a group of friends traveled all the way to KZN to volunteer and assist in the camps there. They spent most of their time at Chatsworth, which was the biggest of the camps there, with well over a thousand people at its peak. Although Embaye could not give from his own pocket, he sorted and handed out food packs donated by Gift of the Givers.
“I got help, others deserved that too,” he said.
“Normal” for Lucas Mabayane and his family means going to work each day and preparing for the arrival of a baby girl. He and his wife Catherine, from Nigeria and Uganda respectively, already have two children; a four-year-old daughter and two-and-a-half-year-old son.
They landed up at the Mayfair refugee camp at the beginning of May, after Mabayane was nearly beaten to death. At the time, his wife took their children and ran, hoping that her husband would make it to safety with them. He joined them days later and recovered quickly, but their daughter had said very little since arriving at the camp.
She was the one who watched it happen and appeared to have been literally scared into silence, afraid for her family’s lives if she spoke. Any interaction at the camp showed how traumatised she really was, as she spent most of the time clutching her father’s hand, shivering as they all tried to gather supplies and find a place to sleep.
“We do what we have to for our children, because it is them who matter.”
The men and women were set up in separate tents, allowing everyone as much privacy as possible. The children mostly stayed with their mothers, but during the day, were treated to visits by volunteers and numerous charitable organisations, including Gift of the Givers, who were responsible for setting up the camp.
For the Mabayane family, learning to rely on other people became a “tragic” part of their new reality. Although they were assisted when the camp closed, several weeks later, had it not been for donations and financial help (two months worth of rent at their new flat), they would not have survived the attacks.
“But it’s okay,” Mabayane said, when they were still living at Mayfair. “We do what we have to for our children, because it is them who matter.”
After the attacks began to die down, he returned to work as a builder and in doing so, managed to get the family back on their feet.
‘All just poor together’
Although at their worst in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the attacks spread to other provinces over time, including the Western Cape. In Blikkiesdorp (a relocation camp in Delft, Cape Town), much of the camp is filled with Somalian men who came to South Africa for a “better life”.
“But there is no better life here,” said Mohamed Ali Siyad.
He is 65-years-old and left Somalia to get away from the fighting. After his shop was burnt down in Delft, he was forced to run for his life and relocate to Bluewaters - a former holiday resort that has been converted into a refugee camp - where once again, his shop was destroyed.
“With the clothes I was wearing, I came here,” he said, from outside his corrugated iron shack inside Blikkiesdorp, where he has lived for the past two years. According to him, it is a safe place to be because all of the Somalis look after one another.
“We are all just poor together.”
For 22-year-old Ahmad Ali of Mogadishu, staying would have meant fighting for al-Shabaab. Blikkiesdorp, he said, is better, because there are no guns and fighting. “I can’t see us leaving this place,” he admitted, adding that he has “got nothing left”.
For many of these people, repatriation is not an option and they are stuck living in poverty, anguish and fear of the next bout of attacks. “It is just a matter of time,” said Embaye.
Although Gift of the Givers has managed to help numerous families to return home, and others with a month or two worth of rent in new homes around Johannesburg, Embaye could possibly be right in that there is no real guarantee for safety.
In fact, in the past few weeks, the South African government has been accused of fanning xenophobic sentiment after police launched a major crackdown on illegal immigrants, called Operation Fiela. More than 1 650 foreigners were among thousands arrested in the wake of this last wave of xenophobia. The government defended the operation and insisted that it had “stabalised the situation and prevented further loss of life”.
“If it isn’t the people, it’s the government telling the people what to do,” Embaye said. He is also a builder and has been back at worth since the end of May. “God only knows what will happen to us all now.”