South African churches mobilize as anti-foreigner violence flares
Church and community centers have been providing refuge for tens of thousands fleeing recent anti-immigrant violence.
Reiger Park, South Africa
Sandra Davids saw them running – women with babies, men carrying blankets, clothes, identity papers, anything they could save from the mob. The next day she did the only thing she could think to do: she went to church. She has been here ever since – sorting baby clothes, laying out rows of tiny shoes, and guiding dazed, uprooted mothers.Skip to next paragraph
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Local school principal Neal Lochenberg sprang into action last week, organizing a task force of churches and mosques, nongovernmental organizations, and community leaders to set up a relief distribution system for thousands of foreigners who had been chased from their homes.
This area east of Johannesburg has been the site of some of the most horrific violence against foreigners living in South Africa, a country-wide explosion that has left more than 50 people dead and tens of thousands on the run. But at St. Vincent's Anglican Church, local volunteers are showing a different side of Reiger Park – a different side, really, of South Africa. Here, in a grass-roots effort, hundreds of volunteers are giving foreigners food, clothes, and care. When asked about the violence, they express a mixture of sadness, shame, and resolve.
"Reiger Park is an impoverished community," says Mr. Lochenberg. "Despite that, the people here respond to their ethical, moral instincts to care for their displaced brothers."
It is a sentiment that has been repeated across South African in recent days – a counterpoint to the images of burning shacks, shell-shocked refugees, and, at its most gruesome, "necklacings," a method of execution in which fuel-filled tires are put over victims and set alight.
Solidarity with foreigners
Over the weekend, thousands marched through downtown Johannesburg, carrying signs in support of immigrants and equating xenophobia with apartheid. On Sunday – Africa Day here – President Thabo Mbeki publicly decried the violence, saying the holiday would be marked "with our heads bowed."
"The shameful actions of a few have blemished the name of South Africa," he said. "Never since the birth of our democracy have we witnessed such callousness."
Although foreigners are often scapegoats in South Africa – blamed for everything from committing crimes to stealing South African jobs – and although xenophobic attacks have occurred in the past, the intensity and breadth of this month's violence is unprecedented.
As it spread from Johannesburg's Alexandra township to other impoverished areas around the city, and then to slums in Durban and Cape Town, some in the government theorized about a "Third Force" behind the unrest; a shady element intent on destabilizing South Africa.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mbeki called in the Army to help quell the attacks.
Since then, however, most government officials have reversed course, saying that the trigger for the violence was likely socioeconomic – a misdirected outburst in communities long frustrated by poverty and horrendous living conditions.
The Ramaphosa settlement, named for a hero in the fight against apartheid, is one such community.
A dense, treeless expanse of shacks built of cardboard and aluminum sheeting, Ramaphosa is the picture of South Africa's continuing struggle with unemployment and impoverishment.
Last weekend, gangs of South Africans roamed the maze-like dirt streets, shouting that Africans of other nationalities were the cause of their problems, and that it was time for revenge.
"This was something that was building up," says Ms. Davids, who has lived in Reiger Park for 16 years. "Still, I'm just shocked that it happened like this."