This evening, I stood outside the Caledon Square police station, where 150 displaced South Africans of other nationalities are sleeping on the pavement, amidst a heavy smell of urine. They’ve been here for two nights already. The rain is about to come, heavy rain for the next three days. Around them swirls a fight between the city authorities and the provincial authorities. No more than 20m from a fucking police station, and they’ve not after two days been provided with anything other than food and blankets by members of the community.
My armchair theory that South Africa is in fact one of the continent’s least developed countries, when one looks at human decency and not at numbers of shopping malls, looks dismayingly substantial.
A group of 12 people from the DRC and Tanzania and Rwanda and Burundi and Somalia surround me (not threateningly) and grill me on what’s happening. “My business of ten years has been destroyed, how can I go back to my mother empty-handed?” “How will we get restitution?” “This government treats us like animals.” “Where is the government, why do they not come to talk us?” “We don’t trust anyone any more, we want the UNHCR.” “They must send us to Namibia, to Zambia. There we will be okay.”
John, from the DRC, had two businesses which he ran from containers in Nyanga. He is married to a South African woman. He has two South African children. Yet he has been hounded from his home to sleep on a stinking pavement outside a police station. He has no idea whether he will ever be able to return to his family.
They are all sleeping on the pavement across the road from the District Six Museum, a museum supposedly dedicated to the rights of forcibly displaced people. Yet tonight, with dozens of forcibly displaced people on its doorstep, those doors remain tightly barred. [update on Wednesday: I was completely wrong about the museum, they are doing lots to assist]
Earlier this evening, we heard that officials from the Department of Social Development, were telling the manager of one of the sites out on the flats, Father Louis, to keep out TAC, and to keep out journalists. So government officials are trying to muzzle the media and block civil society assistance.
Fortunately they are not succeeding. While there are now 21 000 people in recognised sites around the peninsula, many in church halls and mosques, there are many as well in private homes. They are the fortunate ones. I spoke today to a man in Paarden Island whose non-profit company is cooking meals for 6 000. Here outside Caledon Square, I meet Bilel, a Muslim whose community is feeding hundreds of people in the Youngsfield Military Base. Donations are pouring in to TAC. Many are helping. Conditions in the camps are bad, in many instances. Tomorrow I’ll know more.
What should I tell the people around me? That the mayor, Helen Zille, once considered a determined leader for human rights would rather shut them up in internment camps than allow them into smaller, more humane community halls – because to do so would disrupt some weddings!!? That she, the mayor of an entire city of millions, was indignantly telling TAC (the small volunteer-based organisation with which I’m working) this morning that the city had done at least as much as us? That the government has spent the last two weeks mostly sitting on its collective backside while the president contemplates his evaporating legacy through thick glass and amber fluid? That the authorities are now forcibly preventing people from leaving some of the camps, camps even the likes of TAC initially supported.This is a tourist city. But it does not welcome those who are black. At the foot of Africa, something revoltingly close to apartheid is alive and kicking.
And during the day, the suburbs and the city move on, most people mostly unmoved, as always, by the disaster a few feet away.
Update: Wednesday morning
Going, at least, by what I read in the Cape Times, it seems some measure of order may be descending.
The UNHCR has spoken against the camps established by the city. Reading between the lines, there seems to be a greater measure of consensus amongst the various parties. Let’s hope dialogue continues. The challenge seems to remain getting information about what is actually happening, and where, and properly coordinating (to whatever degree is possible) the multitude of efforts.
Vast amounts of resources are now being mobilised. There’s probably even a danger that too much may be pushed into the situation.
I am, more than ever, convinced that in situations such as these, it is the efforts of ordinary people working in their immediate environment, that truly makes a difference, as much if not far more than the efforts of large organisations. All have their place, but the first kind of effort is more valuable. And when people start shouting at each other, and pointing fingers, it simply strengthens those who are neglectful, apathetic or incompetent, while undermining those determined to do good in allegiance with others doing the same.