Refugee anger boiling over in South Africa | Africa | DW | 04.11.2019
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Refugee anger boiling over in South Africa

Refugees in Cape Town are protesting increased xenophobia. But demonstrations have been violently broken up and now migrants are seeking shelter in an overcrowded church, reports Adrian Kriesch.

Cape Town's Methodist church is overcrowded. Bags are stacked all over; people lie in the hallways and sit on benches. The air is thick and the mood tense. Fights break out constantly. Most here haven't really slept for at least three weeks.

Like Sylvie Nahimana, who sits on the floor, exhausted. She is from Burundi and has lived in South Africa for 21 years. She says xenophobia has grown continuously worse each year. ''I'm just furious," she says. "I want to go away, to a place where we are safe. Where we are treated like people. Not like cockroaches."

Sylvie Nahimana with Adrian Kriescher (DW/A. Kriesch)

Sylvie Nahimana's three children were all born in South Africa

Truncheons, tear gas and water cannon

Nahimana and dozens of other migrants were previously camped out in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Cape Town offices. Migrants say they are directly threatened by a wave of xenophobic violence that has been tearing through the country since September.

They want to be sent somewhere else. But rather than getting a solution, they got the police — who used truncheons, tear gas and water cannon to enforce a court order banning migrants from camping near the building. Sylvie Nahimana sustained injuries to her arm. Some 100 migrants who refused to leave the site were arrested on the spot.  

All three of her children were born in South Africa, yet none of them ever received a birth certificate. The system here is slow and discriminatory. she says. Now, Nahimana's family and about 300 other migrants are seeking shelter in the Methodist church in central Cape Town, which opened its doors after police broke up the camp.

Read more: South Africa struggles to combat its problems with violence  

Methodist church at Greenmarket Square (DW/A. Kriesch)

The church at Greenmarket Square is overfilled

South Africans donate food

A number of South Africans have come to the church to help out. They bring food, water and diapers. One elderly South African says he is disgusted by xenophobia and the way police acted in breaking up the camp.  

Next to him, Ali Sablay of the aid organization Gift of the Givers unloads a truck full of food and thinks back to the days of apartheid, when South Africans found shelter in other African countries. "We are all Africans. We have to respect one another. Xenophobia has no place here. We should help one another rather than fight," he says.

Ali Sablay from the organization “Give of the Givers” (DW/A. Kriesch)

Ali Sablay wants an end to xenophobia in South Africa

South Africa has one of the continent's strongest economies and attracts migrants from across Africa. They come here fleeing war, starvation, economic crisis and lack of long-term prospects. Officially, only 270,000 refugees live in South Africa, but the true number of undocumented migrants in the country is no doubt drastically higher — there are no hard numbers, but estimates range from 500,000 to 5 million.

Yet, South Africa's economy is in crisis: It is plagued by 60% youth unemployment, an explosion of debt and massive economic inequality. Now, 25 years after the end of apartheid, the majority of the population still lives in poverty –— and increasingly, anger about the situation is directed at migrants.

Read more: No transparency: Who pays for Africa's election campaigns?

Dream destination: Dubai, Europe or Canada

Still, the case of Cape Town's migrant protesters is unique. They come from 10 different countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Nigeria and Bangladesh. And most of them don't want return to their home countries. They say they aren't safe there either. Instead, many say Dubai, Europe or Canada would be the ideal solution. 

That has even led some critics of xenophobic attacks to view the migrants in the church more like adventurers than victims. "They want a free flight to Canada. That's why they camp out on the streets day and night with their babies," as one commenter on DW Africa's Facebook page wrote.

JP Balous (DW/A. Kriesch)

Refugee spokesman JP Balous refuses to leave the church on Greenmarket Square

"It's blackmail! They used their children as human shields during the eviction," a South African woman wrote, "I live in Cape Town and there is no xenophobic violence here." It is a fact that the most recent xenophobic attacks did not take place in CapeTown, but rather in other cities around the country.

No solution in sight

Right next to the Methodist church on Cape Town's Greenmarket Square is a large market for African art. Many foreign art dealers feel at home here. "They are just disrupting our business," says one dealer from Malawi as he points to the protesters in front of the church.

He sells masks to tourists, but says buyers have stayed away since the violence began escalating. "I haven't sold anything all morning. I didn't earn a penny yesterday either, and now the same today."

Foreign stall owner at the market in Greenmarket Square (DW/A. Kriesch)

Some stall owners at the market are also from other countries and are content in South Africa

As yet it is entirely unclear what the future will hold for the refugees. The UNHCR has called on them to return to their Cape Town homes. "We're staying here. And if the church no longer wants us, we'll go back to sleeping on the street," says JP Balous, a spokesman for the migrants from the DRC.      

Sylvie Nahimana nods in agreement. Next to her stand two travel bags containing everything she owns. "If there was peace in my home country I would go back," says the woman from Burundi, "but there isn't, so they should take me somewhere I am safe."

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