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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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."

Jean Louw got a call on Saturday. Father Hobby Kekana was on the other end of the line, asking her to come to the St. Vincent's Anglican Church complex.

He told her that hundreds of exhausted, terrified foreigners were camping on the church grounds – their only place of refuge from xenophobic violence consuming Ramaphosa.

He needed his parishioners.

Heeding the call to help

For a week, she has been cooking porridge, vegetables, ground beef, anything to feed the shell-shocked crowd – she's not sure whether to call them refugees or neighbors.

"Our hearts are just so sore," says Ms. Louw, taking a break from cooking in the church's small kitchen.

She says that she has recognized acquaintances in the crowd seeking refuge at St. Vincent's – a gardener from down the street, for instance, and the man who used to pick up the church's garbage. "You just don't know what to say."

The church courtyard today is a surreal calm; people sitting on plastic chairs, chatting quietly, playing cards, watching children make castles in the dirt.

Piles of belongings – blankets, big plaid plastic duffle bags stuffed with clothes, the occasional television or electric heater – form a hilly landscape.

Laundry hangs from the metal fence around the church property.

It as if everyone is waiting – although for what is anyone's guess.

A beat-up white Mazda drives to the back of the church and offloads a man struggling with a box and a battered suitcase. His eyes dart around, and he makes his way to one edge of the courtyard. The number of new refugees has slowed, volunteers say, but there is still a constant trickle – people who have tried to return to their shacks, only to find them burned or occupied.

At this point, local authorities estimate that few if any foreigners remain in the Ramaphosa settlement.

In the church sanctuary, Lucinda Baloyi perches on the back of a pew, clipboard in hand, asking questions of Nohlahla Norgeit, a young Zimbabwean woman grasping a tiny baby.

It's Baloyi's job to take details of the newcomers – name, country of origin, number of children, possessions lost. She has been at it for three days – taking off time from her work as a nurse.

"I'm struggling today," she says with a sigh. There are so many people milling in and out it's hard to keep track; and now the stories are blending together.

Ms. Norgeit's experience seems typical: she and her husband ran from their home of three years when crowds started roaming the streets last weekend, burning shacks and looking for foreigners to kill. When she went back a few days later to collect her belongings, she saw that everything was gone – their television, their clothes, even their bedding.

"I have nothing now," she says. "I want to go back home. To Zimbabwe."

Grace Dekoker, another volunteer, walks over with some baby clothes and a few skirts.

"Do you like any of these?" She asks. Norgeit smiles, and takes a yellow frock.

Next Baloyi talks to Pasqual Pacwele, and copies his details from his passport. Mr. Pacwele is Mozambican, and has lived in South Africa since 1975. His wife and five children lost their home and all of their belongings, he says. He came to St. Vincent's because he heard he would be safe until he could find a way to return to his home province. On Friday, the government of Mozambique declared a state of emergency to better cope with the estimated 15,000 Mozambican citizens who have fled South Africa in recent days.

"I am thanking God for these people," Pacwele says, nodding toward the volunteers. He tries to smile, but looks desperately weary. "My life was here. Only God knows why this happened."

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