It has been a busy week, to say the least. With so many South Africans insisting on carrying on the hard work of mindlessly killing their neighbours in the most despicable fashion possible, some of us have been doing our little bit to try and mitigate the worst effects of the human devastation and each, in our own way, say that we are not this sort of South African – that we are people who actually give a damn about human life and care for those who have lost so much.
But facts first. At this point, what we can work out from the press reports in the international and local media, and some of the stuff I have seen at the Jeppe police station, where some 2000 refugees are camped out, some observations can (and because I feel literary, will) be made.
Things in johannesburg have largely calmed down. Which is to say that the killing and violence in the townships has subsided, and only the massive refugee problem remains. The army has been deployed – from what I gather they are backing up police operations and taking over roadblock and other tasks so that the police can use their personnel more effectively for riot control and establishing a presence in the townships.
it is a travesty (upon a disaster, upon a mess, upon a problem ignored for far too long) that the government has yet to proceed beyond blaming a third force
From what I can gather from the people who have asked local government officials and observing how things seem to be working at Jeppe and my own conversations with some of the police there, nobody really has a plan for how to manage this crisis. The Mozambican government has sent fleets of buses to repatriate nationals, but our own government has said precious nothing about what they plan to do to restore these people to homes of any kind, when the refugee camps will be taken down, or anything at all that could indicate they have given more than five minutes of thought to the matter. This is particularly galling. At a time when national passions of all sorts are riding high – whether motivating the mob to continue killing indiscriminately, or whether it is the thousands of ordinary South Africans who have come out swinging to condemn the violence and take time out to volunteer time and resources to fix things – the least the government could do is lend a loud voice to rally the people who care. Instead, the people who care seem to exist largely in the police force, NGOs and places like Facebook. Given how much more aid and assistance would (I feel) come into existence if anyone in government took a lead to talk to South Africa, it is a travesty (upon a disaster, upon a mess, upon a problem ignored for far too long) that the government has yet to proceed beyond blaming a third force and condemning the violence. Condemning the violence is important. But I think it is safe to say that the nation has moved beyond that part of the moralising now and would like to (for many people) get involved and do something right. It’s a pity that our leaders haven’t moved with the public spirit on this one.
I want to take a paragraph here to quickly reflect on how amazing the public support has been. I could dwell on the fact that of the thirty or so people I asked to come and volunteer on a Wednesday afternoon at the Jeppe station, less than five bothered to even reply to say no. Of the replies, one single person came (props to Haydn for being amazing) or donated stuff to take along (thank you Kelly, Mabs, Karen and parents – heroes all). But the only thing worth remembering about that disappointment was the uncomfortable feeling that an invisible line appeared for a time in my world between those who saw suffering, saw a way to help and did. And those who either didn’t see the suffering, didn’t think they could help, or worse still – saw both and declined.
For those who did go along to help though, and for those who will yet, the realisation that you are in the company of a common group who gave a damn and donated or came along, is a richly rewarding feeling. I have never in my life felt so happy picking up rubbish, packing endless (and I really do mean endless – I had dreams of it) Purity baby food and nappies, or dishing out meals as fast as volunteer hands could put them together. None of them will be remembered in the larger picture of things, save that history will implicitly realise that many refugees survived, got home, and had a few possessions and a degree of dignity restored to them. That fact will rest largely on the backs of those who broke soap, administered medicine, donated supplies, phoned endless friends, and got involved.
for a small moment in time, the people working as volunteers and bringing things into the Jeppe station were precisely that. They reflected everything that could be in this country – and that was something to be seen.
What was further inspiring (yes, this has been a rather eye opening week) was the sheer diversity of the people who got involved and came out to help. In one day at the police station, I saw Afrikaans cops, english middle class kids, muslim shopowners, a chinese community volunteer group, yuppies black and white and a pastor from Argentina all in the same place. All either bringing in more supplies than I ever thought likely and grafting their asses off to carry them in, store them, dish them out and ask if there was anything else at all that they could do to help. I am usually not given to subscribing to the idea of the rainbow nation of South Africa, finding it a convenient gloss under which we hide generations of racial and economic mess and think we can just act like the Brady Bunch and make it go away. But, for a small moment in time, the people working as volunteers and bringing things into the Jeppe station were precisely that. They reflected everything that could be in this country – and that was something to be seen.
While I am in the habit of handing out sugary spoons of appreciation, a word also needs to be said for our police force. Besides the obvious fact that they have performed an admirable job of stabilising the situation while our politicians saw fit to screw around on the issue, many of them have found themselves being unwitting coordinators of chaotic thousand-person refugee camps. The guys at Jeppe told me they have been working from 07h00 to 22h00 every day since last Saturday when the first refugees arrived, with no indication as to when things will calm down. In spite of the long hours and stressed situation, they have kept an amazing sense of good humour and dedication throughout and truly deserve to be commended across the ranks for doing their job (and even tasks which are not their job) admirably and preventing further chaos.
In the longer term, it is not clear where things will go from here. Many of the refugees will be going home, with horrible memories of the worst elements in our country, while nobody has any idea whether or how those who choose to remain will ever be able to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on. Our own socioeconomic situation indicates that the underlying problems of inequality and deprivation (Enclaves of exclusion, as Hawk so eloquently put it) are not going to go away, and it is anyone’s guess whether the exodus of foreigners will make the angry mobs go back to the business of being poor and marginalised, or whether this anger will simply manifest in a different guise in the short to medium term. I can’t see it going away, if the root causes are things like lack of delivery, security and jobs – those are sufficiently fundamental frustrations that they will just fester until the next blow out. You can’t after all, ask someone to just hang on and stay hungry for a few more years until we sort out his community after all. Nor can you threaten that resentment out of them with any amount of police and army. We can buy some time, but unless we can really make these people believe that things are going to get better, we will be back here again.