Special report by Ashley Cloete of Friends from Abroad
At the end of October last year, someone sent me this link to a video clip in which children were being removed from their mothers and women were being forcefully removed by police carrying out an eviction order of refugees protesting outside the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cape Town. The link was accompanied with the comment: “This should NEVER happen to ANY child, EVER ! These children will carry these physical and emotional scars for the rest of their lives. A gross violation of the United Nations rights of a child enshrined in our own Constitution. WWJD?”
In earlier days everyone in our circles knew that the acronym WWJD, that young people wore on wrist bands, stood for: What Would Jesus Do?
This resonated in my heart in a double sense. I immediately volunteered when Dr Barry Isaacs asked if anyone could attend a meeting on the refugee situation in St George’s Cathedral on October 31 on behalf of the Concerned Clergy of the Western Cape.
I had no answer, however, to the question “What would Jesus do?” in this situation. I was starkly reminded of the dark apartheid days when I was confronted more than once with brute police actions. As someone who has been praying with a group of believers at the Central Police Station, I am also aware of the pressures under which policemen are operating and am reliably informed that the situation was more complex than what was portrayed in the distressing video clip which resulted in a surge of criticism of the police on social media. The protesters undoubtedly employed tactics calculated to leave the police with no option but to remove children from the situation, and there was a lack of critical involvement from key roleplayers who could have helped to calm down the situation. But there still seemed to be just no excuse for what was displayed on the video clip.
At an engagement facilitated by the SAHRC on October 31 between the protesting refugee leaders, DHA, UNHCR, Office of the Premier, DSD, DoH, and civil society organisations in a side room of St George’s Cathedral, Rev Annie Kirke, coalition catalyst for More Than Peace, was one of the Church representatives listening to the reports of the UNHCR and the refugee leaders. I had previously seen that Anglican woman cleric displaying compassionate wisdom alongside Bishop Mark Bloemstein and Pastor Barry Isaacs in 2017 when racial violence threatened to burst into flame in Sequalo, a new informal settlement next to Jakes Gerwel Drive in Mitchell’s Plain township. Xhosa people had been coming from the Eastern Cape in numbers, causing local people on city council waiting lists for housing for years, to rise in strong opposition.
After the reported maltreatment by the police at the UN offices on October 30, I continued receiving information about the African refugee folk who had been compassionately invited into the Central Methodist Mission on Greenmarket Square by Rev Alan Storey. Before that I had been listening to one of the leaders of the group of about 80 refugees in front of the UNHRC offices. There, I apologised as a South African, via their loud hailer, for the xenophobic attitude of our Department of Home Affairs. I have experienced many examples of lack of cooperation by the department to prove that statement.
By the time I started engaging with the situation, a rumour had been spread far and wide that the UNHR would assist asylum seekers and other refugees to go to a third country like Canada. The refugee leaders misled many people, telling them to leave their homes, jobs and take their children out of school because of the xenophobia that they have been experiencing. I am only too sadly aware of the reality of xenophobia in Cape Town. We may not have had the looting of shops and other grave xenophobic actions that occurred in other provinces, but the hateful attitudes and remarks they face on trains and taxis are part and parcel of their daily reality.
The numbers of refugees in the Cape Town CBD swelled in November and in no time the Central Methodist Mission was full. Within a few more days hundreds of protesting refugees were also camping on the pavement next to and opposite the church building.
Subsequently, UNHCR officials have been addressing refugee leaders in Cape Town and Pretoria, issuing multiple statements and pamphlets in different languages to the protesters and to the media. Somehow, the refugee leaders continued to keep the lie alive that the group would be assisted to get to another country.
At the end of January Church leaders were invited to be briefed by Dr Chris Nissen, the Director of the governmental Human Rights Commission on the situation at Green Market Square. On Monday January 27 I joined Pastor Anaclet Mbeygu and Dr Barry Isaacs as members of the Concerned Clergy. Ps Anaclet was himself a refugee from Burundi who came to the Cape many years ago.
Three days later the SA Human Rights Commission withdrew from seeking a resolution to the crisis after a refugee leader allegedly threatened its commissioner, Chris Nissen with death.
As I conclude this article, a sense of helplessness almost overwhelms me. I am, however, also encouraged that in similar cases down the years where the magnitude of a problem brought us to our knees in prayer as a nation, God intervened miraculously.
I take the liberty to invite readers to pray that His name may be glorified ultimately once again, so that what would happen to the refugees at Greenmarket Square might send out ripples of goodwill across the nation to take the biblical command seriously, to love the stranger in our gates… down the years.
Suggested prayer points:
a) That a court case next week (February) may facilitate finding a way forward with regards to the real issues and needs of those protesting at the methodist church and in Green Market Square.
b) That parties will comply promptly with the judge’s ruling and not drag out its implementation.
c) That God may use our State President as the AU Chairman this year, to bring blessing to our continent.
d) That the president’s own positive encouragement to South Africans to be caring and loving towards all foreigners might be spread and applied.
e) That the Lord may open the hearts and homes of South Africans towards all those who came from other countries, opening up many of their hearts to receive the Gospel. What an opportunity we have through foreigners in our country to impact the continent, ultimately seeing many of them returning to their countries of origin to be a blessing to their people. (This is the philosophy of Friends from Abroad. I was blessed as an apartheid-related exile of about 20 years before returning to SA in 1992.)