Today my family and I helped to feed the displaced people from Marathon Squatter Camp in Germiston. Most of the people who stood in the orderly line in front of our two rickety tables hadn’t had a meal or a drink for three days. One man’s head still had the dried blood on it from an attack on him on Friday night. His blue jersey was a stiff bruised purple, saturated as it was with dried blood. Another man who has lived in South Africa for 21 years waved his son’s death certificate at us in anger, how could we be serving food when his son was dead, waiting in the Germiston Morgue to be buried. Then he apologised for his anger, he simply had nobody else to tell of his loss. A fifteen year old boy carrying an empty white backpack with broken zips sobbed without shame and accepted whatever food and drink was thrust into his hands, but he walked away without gobbling it down like his compatriots. Nobody knew who he was or whether he had any family, nobody knew if he spoke Shangaan or Portuguese.
A man in a magnificent black overcoat with a robust demeanour marched his beautiful family up the street to the gate at the Germiston Police Station where they sat in disciplined silence. We motioned to the man to come and get a meal for his family but his forceful hand movements and his taut face told us to leave them alone. The indignity of being ousted from the home he’d built for his family by his neighbours was too much for him; he could not take the risk of placing his faith in anyone else. A young mother cursed us when we tried to give her a drink for her baby, accusing us of trying to finish off what people were trying to do to foreign residents in the squatter camp; she was convinced we had poisoned the still-packaged food donated by Woolworths and Pick ‘n Pay. A tall man’s face was right-side heavy from the swelling of the beating he’d received, he wore only a pair of khahi trousers and he’d immediately been discharged from the hospital once they’d stitched up his head. He did not have the co-ordination to removed the foil covering from the yoghurt we gave him; he did not have the energy to release a full sob, his pain and anger were strangled in the dry moans caught in his throat as he sat shaking on the pavement.
You can hand people food in a conveyer-belt fashion or you can talk to them, listen carefully enough to find out if their name is Lizette or Yvette. You will discover that some of the people are from Mozambique but most are from Zimbabwe and yet everybody ends up speaking a pidgin African lingo seasoned with smiles in the hope of being understood, it works. Ali and I make the tea and Lizette fetches water; our diners wait patiently. One man asks Mark if he can have tomato sauce, we tell him we’re not McDonalds and everyone laughs. It is remarkable how little time it has taken us to win the confidence of a huddle of frowning people.
As we stand handing out slices of Woolies Low GI Seed Loaf and Triple Chocolate Mousse desserts hands divebomb at us from all angles and the pot of water for the tea wobbles precariously on the gas. One has to stop oneself from reprimanding people from being greedy; when will their next meal come? We try to make a point about giving mothers and children, but many of the men haven’t eaten in favour of their women and so I open the tins of baked beans and give them to the men with a request that they share it with someone, some do and some don’t. I don’t say anything to them just like I don’t say anything to the 27 friends who didn’t reply to my request to help at the feeding station. I understand that some people do nothing because they think they can only do a little; I wish they knew how much that ‘little’ can help. A single orange-half quenches the thirst of a stoop-shouldered old man whose shoe flaps.
When politicians are asked to react to this violence of people upon people they look to the unemotional politico-support of tables and figures and experts. Their key to analysing this crisis is to look at the numbers. On the altar of human sacrifices they are quick to offer up official statistics that show the influx of foreigners to our shores, they point to plot diagrams that show the level of crime in our cities and towns, they wave at sliding scales of poverty, proffer official figures and unofficial figures, experts are consulted to supply calculations and forecasts of what could and will probably happen on the sub-continent if one political party assumes power or another oligarch is ousted. The human catastrophe is transformed into a numerical exercise.
Is this war of man on man about xenophobia, is it about the haves and the have not’s, is it about empty bellies and is it even about politics? If you pare this untenable situation down to its most basic surely it’s about humanity versus inhumanity. If South Africans sit back and tut-tut over the news reports then surely we might as well all have a panga in our hands or be hula-hooping around one of apartheid’s legacy of smoking tyres. By doing nothing, by saying nothing we are colluding with our fellow South Africans who are behaving badly.
The government will provide plots and graphs and million-page consultant reports to provide reasons for that it’s-not-my-responsibility term – human collateral. If that is all the government is going to do then ordinary South Africans are going to pay dearly for the incalculable losses, the ones we can’t see through the current smoke of blame.
What price the cost to a boy who will never again speak because of the trauma he has witnessed, not only when he left Zimbabwe, but when he fled from Marathon Squatter Camp, South Africa?
What will the cost be to your business when the orders stop coming from overseas companies who won’t do business with racist South Africa?
What is the cost to every single South Africa who joined hands when the rainbow nation was formed and promised to be a shining beacon to the rest of the world?
While the politicians pore over numbers and excuses will South Africa, like Rwanda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, succumb to being the newest member state of Savage Africa? Have we already done so?
These are the costs to every single South African that need to be calculated, and the question is, are ordinary South Africans prepared to pay them with the lives of our neighbours?