The refugee camp in Africa’s richest city

This is Simon, who’s editing today’s show. We’ve broadcast WHYS from all sorts of places but Tuesday’s show looks like it could be one of the most chaotic venues. It’s the Central Methodist Church in down-town Johannesburg. You can see our pictures of it here, and news stories about it here. This is what I’ve seen of it over the past few days….

At the moment its home to around 2,000 Zimbabweans, many of whom fled their homes in the recent xenophobic violence that left more than 60 dead. And while it offers security and shelter, conditions are breathtakingly uncomfortable.

At night, you walk around the dimly lit corridors and staircases, stepping over bodies huddled in blankets. There’s hardly a floor tile or step that isn’t taken up. Men, many looking tired, are everywhere.

The church’s caretaker Justice showed us around. And it got more unbelievable.

He’d open one door and inside were scores of women and children, jammed packed into a small room. There were no beds – everyone also lay on the floor. The smell of a boiling pot of food on a single gas stove filled the air. It was dark. People’s figures were shadow-like under the single bulb.

Behind the next door, the women-only room. Same picture. Onto the next door; the married couples’ room.

And so it unfolded with familiarity from this point.

In short, the church is a make-shift refugee camp.

Although services still take place every evening. So the Bishop is keeping his obligation to his big employer. They’ll be a service getting underway when we start the show at 1700GMT.

To be honest, we had something of an abrupt introduction when we went to check out our isdn signal for Tuesday’s broadcast.

As we walked through the doors of the entrance, there was some pushing and shoving, shouting, fists were raised, and a guy was thrown unceremoniously onto the pavement outside.

We’d arrived on Saturday night. Apparently, that’s pay day. It costs 5 Rands (about 60 cents) for a week’s lodgings. And it seems this bloke decided he was going to try and sneak in. No chance. The young guys doing the voluntary security saw to that.

Does it generally feel tense? Not sure. But perhaps the people standing in the shadows give it a bit more of a menacing feel. Although, we were told fights do break out.

Then again, you try living on top of 2000 or so other people, when you’ve just been driven from your home, and see how mild mannered you are.

Overall it must be said, people would smile and say hello. And despite all the difficulties that have come their way of late, they were positive.

One thing that struck us from the 15-20 conversations we had was that people are looking for work. And if they can get a job, they want to move out of the church and go back to where they previously lived.

The other thing that stood out was that though things aren’t great for them in South Africa at the moment, they still feel the grass is greener on this side of border. Although ask what they would do if Robert Mugabe was no longer in charge and they all say they would be getting the next minibus, taxi or train back to Zimbabwe.

So we’re all set for some moving and fascinating stories. We plan to set up in one of those rooms I mentioned earlier, sit down and listen.

You can post your thoughts and questions, as always.

Of course, it is hard not to feel sympathy but then there are some in South Africa who say that many of the people in the church are here illegally. Others they accuse of contributing to the current crime levels. So their argument goes: “Why should the Zimbabweans be made welcome?”

Where do your sympathies lie?

7 Responses to “The refugee camp in Africa’s richest city”

  1. 1 Bob in Queensland
    July 15, 2008 at 10:15

    Obviously my sympathies lie with those forced to live in these conditions. However, my first thought was “how can Mbeki justify his softly softly approach to Mugabe when things like this are happening right under his nose?”.

    The SA government’s lack of gumption in dealing with Zimbabwe is surely a major contributory factor in this problem.

  2. 2 nelsoni
    July 15, 2008 at 11:34

    This show’s how effective Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” has being.

  3. July 15, 2008 at 14:22

    It’s common knowledge that the foreigner is always a target for attacks wherever he/she goes. After all, if something goes wrong, the easiest thing to do is to ‘blame the guy who can’t speak English’. Really disheartening that with such deplorable conditions that these people are forced to succumb, Mugabe still blames the West. Well, if it’s all the fault of the West, why are Zimbabweans doing in such great numbers in South Africa?

  4. 4 Katharina in Ghent
    July 15, 2008 at 17:36

    Thank you for sharing this story with us. Whenever I have to struggle I tell myself that “this is nothing compared to what other people have to go through”, now I know a bit better what they really have to go through! The important lesson here is that they don’t give up, they just keep trying to live as good as they can. Very heartwarming, actually.

  5. 5 Luz Ma
    July 15, 2008 at 17:41

    I feel for all people in the world forced to live in these conditions. I only hope that the international community step in to help Zimbabweans remove Mugabe from power and then, these refugees coud go back home.

    I am looking forward to listen to these refugees.

  6. 6 Ogola Benard
    July 16, 2008 at 06:04

    Actually a refugee hostel and not a camp. The world ought to know how people should really live. Thanx for NGO’s.

  7. 7 Emile Barre
    July 17, 2008 at 22:17

    I think the real reason that Zimbabwean exiles are treated so shabbily is that they are a constant reminder that 14 years after being elected the ANC has still not changed the name of the country to Azania.

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