Time To Say Goodbye

Today I told Partson that the sponsors had agreed to give the school teachers a small stipend and he wondered if the headmaster wasn’t entitled to a bit more considering his increased responsibility. For the rest of the afternoon I panicked about how we are going to disburse the money. The economic hardship of the displaced is no secret, so I felt that whoever takes money into the camp would be at serious risk.

Tonight a fellow Zimbabwean turned on Joseph and tried to kill him. All day Joseph’s wife Bridget had heard mumblings about dissatisfaction with her husband’s role in the new camp. Then after Joseph had seen to it that everyone had been fed, he sat down to eat his own dinner and the okapi wielding thug tore into Joseph’s tent and accused him of lowering the standard of the meals and keeping the money from the UN. There was no reasoning with the thug, he ripped into Joseph, the knife neatly slicing through the cotton fabric of Joseph’s shirt. Fortunately it was nothing more than a graze and eventually some of Joseph’s friends stepped in. They chased the hooligan down and he was taken away by Metro Police. Bridget says, “The security guards ran away, they said they aren’t allowed to interfere in fights between the people.”

Today representatives of the MDC arrived at the camp; when the refugees were still living at City Hall, Joseph was asked to introduce the representatives from Zanu-PF. He doesn’t take political sides and he made whatever introductions both groups asked him to make. It’s impossible to know if this attack on him was politically motivated or whether Joseph has become the focus on which the discontented can vent their frustrations, anger and disappointment.

We had just eaten dinner when Joseph phoned. As we drove around the camp people were sitting in the soft glow of the lights that have been installed, huddled around fires socialising. We collected Joseph and Bridget and moved them and their belongings into our second garage; the other garage still contains the furniture of Felipe and Ana Paula who returned to Mozambique. The garage is draughty, the windows don’t have latches, the garage door doesn’t close flush and the cement floor bites underfoot.  They made their bed in no time at all with the help of Carrington and Bodicea and Ali and Mark listened as they repeated the cheerless conclusion of their involvement with their fellow refugees. We commandeered two more pillows from our children’s beds and gave them mugs of soup.

On this past Wednesday I warned that the mood had changed, the tension in the crisp winter air was tangible. I trust my gut – it’s an important tool. I will continue to assist the school remotely, but I know now that I will not return to Rand Airport Refugee Camp.

Seen But Not Heard

The day started with rain and a white sun. The field on which the refugees have been settled turned to sludge and in no time the 4X4 tracks had turned the central path and entrance to the camp into a quagmire. The rain pelted down and the camp residents huddled inside their plastic tents.

There were camera crews and photographers everywhere. One photographer was balancing on his scapula – yes, his shoulder-blade – ignoring the discomfort so that he could get the money shot. He’d been there an hour. A cameraman barrelled up the stairs of the school bus. “Where are you from?” I asked. “DSTV,” he replied. I stood my ground. “What Channel?” I insisted. “Channel O.” “That’s not a news channel, that’s a music channel; I think you’re in the wrong place.”

When Partson and I have a chance to chat, I suggest that the exposure of the children to the media should be limited, maybe a quarter of an hour in the morning and a quarter of an hour in the afternoon. There are definitely legitimate press who have been dedicated in their coverage of the displacement, but then there are crews who arrive without offering any credentials, not that there’s really a person designated to check the creds of anyone who arrives. One group I spoke to were from Wits Forced Migration Studies and another group that visited, without a camera crew, were from the Refugee Children’s Project.

The GDE have visited and so has UNICEF, the latter have ordered lap-desks for all the learners, very useful equipment since the school is no longer being hosted at the Methodist Church but in the top half of an orange and yellow double-decker bus. Penny M from GDE is a voice of reason and says unequivocally that we cannot really refer to the school as a ‘school’ because all sorts of official connotations come into play, but she encourages us to continue with the informal lessons. The National Toy Library delivers toys and instructs the teachers how to play with the children.

Because of the six-week time-frame before the children are either integrated into local schools or the government relocates the displaced, it has been decided that the focus of the formal education will be on English and Mathematics. Only five teachers will continue working at the school. Remuneration has been raised and it is agreed that we will utilise a third of the income in cash sponsorship for salaries for the teachers. They deserve it, they have been dedicated and enthusiastic from the time I made the call for teachers at City Hall.

The remaining Malawian refugees feel abandoned, their high commissioner no longer answers his cellphone when we call. It’s best to make the calls in front of them so that they can see that we don’t walk away and forget about them. In frustration I lead them to the side of the bus where the E-News reporters are huddled under an umbrella, I brief the relunctant news crew about the Malawian dilemma and say the Malawians won’t leave until someone listens. That’s the thing, nobody wants to listen to the displaced, their images are blazed over all the media but their voices are not unheard.

Life in Tent City

City Hall is in darkness, the double doors are locked and the cleaners are sweeping the steps, only the dozen green portable toilets stand as testament to the people who lived there for two weeks. In  Spilsbury Street a dreadlocked Mozambiquan who has not returned to his homeland paces up and down the wide sidewalk, never venturing too far from his possessions which are a large, red, square zipper bag with a teddy bear silskreened on the front, a heap of dusty grey and brown blankets and a bundle of brand new socks still stuck together. They are heaped on one of the two columns that regally define the small space that he occupies. He wears a gold hoop in his left ear and he chews on a matchstick. His black faux leather trousers and his red fleece hoodie may be too hot in the midday heat but they’ll no doubt be insufficient against the cold, wet weather that is forecast.

At Rand Airport we are pleased to see that the municipal services have pitched up en-masse, not so pleased to see that some of their employees are sitting on their backsides staring malevolently at the new residents. The queue that snakes around the Red Cross table is four people deep and consists mainly of men. The grass that was so worrying yesterday is still dry, but trampled down somewhat from all the activity. The same volunteers smile their welcome, it is humbling that they never seem worn down by their plight. They are putting up tentsand there is no time for idleness or moaning; their positive attitude is an inspiration.

Entrepeneurs have sprung up, on offer are the skinniest fish imaginable; red, pink and orange sweeties and square biscuits are sold singly. There are three hundred tents numbered in black koki pen next to their doorways and there are fifty toilets. This services three thousand people. Less than fifty metres from the camp is the Germiston Lake yet there is not a single tap for fresh water. There are no lights yet. Erasmus ponders the difficulties and dangers of living in darkness, it is agreed that the school children must be given fire-drill first thing in the morning.

Joseph is the Germiston City Hall representative and Shepherd is the Primrose representative. There is a mixed air of bewilderment, relief and dissatisfaction. The Malawian contingent surrounds Mark soon after our arrival. Again Mark makes the calls to their High Commissioner and his Deputy, again the calls are routed to voicemail. The Malawians lips quiver as they tell of their disgust and disappointment in their government. Their leader Said is in hospital; their feeling of abandonment is palpable.

As we leave Armand approaches us, clutching a pink plastic packet with his belongings – identification papers and certificates. He returned to work today and his employer was eager to ask him about his experience.

“Did they give you a house?” He asked.

Armand confirmed he is living in a tent with nine other men.

“Did they give you blankets?

Armand confirmed that blankets were handed out.

“Did they give you food?”

Armand confirmed that he had received meals.

His employer grabbed him around the neck and throttled him while his fellow workers pulled his uniform off.

“If you get all that then you don’t need a job, come fetch your money on Friday.”

Hurt and insulted Armand asked about his UIF card.

“Your UIF money bought you all that food, you’re not getting another cent,” his employer said.

The police station wouldn’t allow Armand to lay a charge of assault and referred him to the Labour Court, they told him he must go to the CCMA.

He sighed and pointed to a tent behind him.

“I live there at number 230, please if you can help me I am a woodwork finisher,” he said.

The Winter of Discontent

The new shelters that have been erected for the displaced are not acceptable; ten people will live in each tent and the material out of which the tents are made is not durable in the long term. The land on which the white half-barrel shaped tents are pitched is tinder dry; a fire hazard waiting to happen. A barbed wire fence is the only protection against the cars that spin perilously round the corner and other people that aren’t too keen to have a thousand ‘squatters’ on their doorstep. There is no sanitation and no access to fresh running water. The site is prime real estate, directly opposite the Germiston Golf Course, sanctuary for the stressed corporate chiefs, who, by the way, have been enormously generous to the displaced.

There is a high school within walking distance, but the headmaster was reluctant to welcome the children from the displaced community. The emails to would-be sponsors for the school elicit no response, for the last three days my inbox has been dry as the grass on which the tents are pitched. I tried to explain charity fatigue to the school committee, but they remain hopeful because they have been inundated by visitors – the fifth estate. The foreign press and the local media click away at the school children; I tell Partson to name exactly what he needs – a permanent building and teacher’s salaries. He sms’es me to say the pupils need to be transported to school.

Most of the displaced people filled out forms for asylum on Friday and Saturday. I type up a CV for Carrington and he goes job hunting, but everybody is wary of employing foreigners. Those who have previously given work to foreigners have sent their workers back to their countries and say they have to give them a month’s grace to return. After then, it might be possible for him to find a job. “I can’t employ foreigners, my clients want assurance that my staff is 100% South African,” says Danie who owns a large security company and who sponsored some very necessary items at the Germiston City Hall.

Personal friends and business acquaintances have been so forthcoming with aid when it was absolutely vital that it seems unfair to ask them for more. We have our own lives to return to so that our financial status doesn’t collapse. Yet still the calls for assistance persist. “I need a room for my wife,” Joseph begs. We have no more room at our home; we already house seven residents plus our own family of six; it’s impossible to have a hot, hot shower. The phone rings long after the sun has set. Eventually I tell Mark to switch the phone off.

 

Another Day, Another Challenge

I haven’t been to the City Hall for two days now, I’ve attended a Publishing Colloquium at Wits and I’ve enjoyed the return to my brand of normality. I have a structured life to return to; the displaced people do not.

“Don’t make it too comfortable for the refugees, hey, or they won’t wanna go home?” This is the advice that several people feel compellled to give me. “Which home would that be?” I ask, repeating the answer Mark gave to me when I gave him the same advice. Do they mean the house that was burned down or the country that they have already fled from? One has to constantly remind oneself that the displaced do not have anywhere at all to go to. When I discuss the situation with people I find that they all have a solution even if they don’t quite understand the complexity of the situation.

The causes for this outbreak of inhuman and unnecessary violence defy any ineffectual examination and analysis that I might try to make; Mark and I are not meeting go-ers, we prefer to listen to the needs of the people and try to match them with solutions.

While the government does or doesn’t do anything, we have the daily challenges of making life work for people who are confined to the makeshift centres they find themselves in. It doesn’t help them to bitch and moan about lack of delivery.

The real problems that face us at the moment are not what’s going to happen to these people in the future – the latest rumour is camps in agricultural areas – it’s how can we get water on-site today so that they can wash themselves, it’s who we can phone to collect and deliver food because we’ve had an over-supply of meals, it’s who can donate identification bands so that we don’t have opportunists walking in and walking out of the centre with free food and clothing and whatever else they can pilfer.

We’ve had to organise trauma counsellors to attend to those who feel unable to cope with their situation, however some of the things we’ve had to contend with might seem trivial in comparison, but they go a long way to easing the stress for the residents at Germiston City Hall. We’ve bought a bottle brush for the bottles in the nursery since trauma caused many nursing mothers to lose their ability to produce milk. We’ve bought a grater and knives chopping boards for the tireless kitchen workers and we’ve bought a long plug adaptor so that people can recharge their phones. Of course you have to appoint guardians for some of these items or else someone will might steal them and make money out of them.

Yesterday Mark delivered two television sets donated by a business associate; Joseph phoned last night to tell us how delighted the people were to have access to the world again. There are no newspapers lying around City Hall, it is disconcerting to be isolated without any news of what is being done in terms of their situation.

There are some people who have money, but most do not. The lack of money is evident by the amount of young men and the lack of tobacco being smoked by them in and around the premises. The longer people wait in limbo, the more likely it is that entrepreneurs will rise up out of the fog of uncertainty that enshrouds displacement. Already a man with a broken leg sells bananas at R2 each. My concern is that entrepreneurs will arise not only out of the ranks of the displaced, but from some people who have access to them. Many individuals who are not related to the media are walking into the centre and taking photographs. I’ve heard the argument that a picture says a thousand words, but my opinion is that it is immoral to impose a lens into the destruction and uncertainty of the lives of people who aren’t living in their present conditions by choice. Personally, I haven’t had to show a single photograph for the amazing charitable responses to our calls for assistance.

What Price Our Silence

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?

The Little School That Could

It was my intention to remove myself from City Hall once the school was up and running, but in spite of all the chaos out of which the school has sprung and the small rooms in which they must operated, the school is thriving. The first message on my cellphone yesterday morning was from Partson: “Ok set up is in place in the hall wl start registration of pupils. Orientation in hall at 8am.” Another sms followed, “Hav opened the schl in style teaching now on.”

I sat down at my PC and there it was, Partson’s shopping list for the school.

“Germiston Refugee School

Books for the teachers – teaching guides for various levels. Pre school to Grade 12. Toys, colourful blocks, movable/portable boards, chalk, dusters, charts, magic markers, manila sheets, picture charts (with different situations), clay for moulding, erasable boards, old tyres, balls, musical instruments (for children)”.

One of the blackboards that donor Jill from Bryanston had bought was standing proudly on its easel outside the classroom, and written on it in crisp white chalk was, “Classes now in progress, silence please.”

 

The first overcrowded classroom had all the junior primary children sitting on blankets colouring in as one of the teachers chanted to her young charges. “This is a ball, the ball is blue and the sky is blue.” When they became aware of my presence they all sing-songed a welcome greeting that shook my by the throat, how dare I think could get away with abandoning the fledgling that I had put out onto water?

 

The high school children were seated on chairs around their respective teachers, their brows creased with concentration in the darkness of the room; none of the lights were working. Within half an hour a sponsor had sent his electrician to repair the lights on the south wing of the City Hall.

 

Someone suggested that we shouldn’t allow anyone to teach if they haven’t got their certificate, one teacher said he would go back to Marathon Squatter Camp to collect his. I said nobody would be going back into that hotbed of hatred; he would teach if he wanted to teach. How can you have normal expectations in abnormal times?

 

The Star newspaper and CNN arrived and Partson asked me if they can film the school, I told him that is his school he does not have to ask me for permission. The church wants to relocate the school and even though I would like to see the school remain where it is, I understand the enthusiasm of the teachers. I suggested that the administrator of City Hall  and the parents should be consulted, after all, it is their children.

 

In the afternoon I went to Mica and I swopped out some items donated by the Jewish Board of Deputies. We purchased a water dispenser and storage units for all the books and toys and glue and paint and cleaning items.

 

I don’t know how long the little school will last, but when I see the last item on Partson’s list – computers, I don’t know whether he is an optimist or a pessimist, perhaps in Africa he’s just a realist.