||In a small back room at the Cato Manor police station, Cyril Vezi was
almost invisible under mounds of canned goods when I visited last week.
He and other Red Cross staff and volunteers worked virtually round the
clock for days.
Every hour or so another volunteer would pull in with a carload of goods
donated by shoppers at supermarkets around Durban. Cars and bakkies were
piled high with packed boxes. They headed out to police stations and
churches around town where refugees were sheltering from xenophobic
Throughout the weeks more and more refugees had arrived at these ‘safe
havens’. Churches phoned regularly to say they’d suddenly had an influx
of people and didn’t know what to do with them. Five new havens were
added to the list on one afternoon alone.
Even now, more than a month after the first outbreaks of xenophobic
violence, civil society volunteers are picking up pieces dropped by the
system. Students, faith-based organisations, NGOs and the good people of
Durban are doing crisis management, feeding hundreds of people .
But by last week, food was running out and the volunteers were
exhausted. Red Cross and other organisations were waiting, still, for
word of how the City planned to deal with the crisis, or for any support
from municipal or local government. None seemed to be forthcoming.
Belatedly, municipal officials announced a disaster management plan.
With the number of refugees ‘unofficially’ sheltering at sites around
the city up to over 2,000, organisations shouldering the City’s
responsibilities could be forgiven for concluding this was too little,
Several crisis meetings were hosted by the Diakonia Council of Churches,
which is one of many organisations stretching all their resources. Once
it was clear that the municipal response was wholly inadequate, Diakonia
and its allies agreed to continue their efforts.
The Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal began
bringing together leaders of immigrant communities with local groups to
start the most important dialogue of all. That this would be preferable
to bussing tens of thousands back to their home countries should not be
in question. Who among us would want to send our brothers and sisters
back to Zimbabwe, the eastern part of the DRC or Burundi?
Yet busloads still leave our city each day. As the scared immigrants
board the buses, Red Cross representatives and other citizens apologise,
trying to explain that this is not what South Africa is all about. But
what these multiple refugees see is that the government here has allowed
them to be threatened, abused and harmed, and is doing little to protect
or care for them.
Anthony Collins, campaign coordinator for Durban Action Against
Xenophobia, talked to several local councillors, asking them to push the
City to act. Their response was that there was no real problem. Says
Collins, ‘This is a very real humanitarian crisis, and if local
government doesn’t act soon it will be a lot worse.’
The longer we wait to implement a sound disaster management plan, the
more refugees there will be to house. We have seen from Johannesburg's
experiences that this government is not willing to set up safe camps
that meet minimal health and sanitation standards. The KZN provincial
government identified sites suitable for camps, but in the meantime, the
refugees remain in church halls and wait for the food that is so quickly
Municipal officials need to stop relying on NGOs and faith-based
organisations to do their job for them. Urgent provision needs to be
made to shelter, clothe and feed the refugees in conditions that meet
decent health standards, until such time as provincial and national
capacity is provided.
The Mayor’s office needs to engage with all role-players and instead of
just offering platitudes, communicate a serious, comprehensive and
sustainable plan of action. And they need to do it soon.
The refugees in Durban may be smaller in number compared with those
displaced in Gauteng and the Western Cape, where more attention has been
focused. That doesn’t make this situation any less of a crisis.
Over 2,000 foreign nationals without assured supplies of food or water,
and with inadequate sanitation and security, sit on our doorsteps. They
are ignored at our peril.
Samantha Schwarer is a postgraduate student at UKZN's School of