Many years after it first became a place of refuge for Zimbabwean refugees, Gauteng provincial legislators finally made an official visit to the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. They were shocked and horrified - and now want to close the shelter down ASAP. Apparently without realising that conditions there are almost entirely the fault of government.
The Gauteng Portfolio Committee on Health and Social Development paid a “surprise” visit to the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, after making sure the media knew about it in advance. The Sapa report on the reaction of committee chair Molebatsi Bopape is colourful and contains some great sound bites. “”Children are being exposed to abuse, babies are sleeping on the floor, the place is so filthy that we couldn’t even breathe,” she reportedly said.
Now the committee wants to shut the church down, or at least remove the more than 3,000 refugees who are packed into it much like sardines. That will cheer some locals and business owners in downtown Johannesburg, who have long blamed the refugees for crime in the area. It will put mortal terror into the hearts of the refugees, many of whom live in the church because they genuinely believe they have nowhere else to go.
The national and Gauteng governments are almost entirely to blame for the situation at the church, though one must acknowledge that the regime of Robert Mugabe made a guest appearance. South Africa’s policy of let-them-sort-it-themselves certainly didn’t help stem the root cause for the flood of economic and political immigrants from that country. During the wave of xenophobic violence centred on Gauteng, the provincial government failed utterly to give foreign refugees a feeling of security; even at the concentration camps that were eventually established, inhabitants had a sense of being corralled while men with pitchforks circled, waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
At least some of the Zimbabweans at the Central Methodist Church genuinely believe they face execution should they return home. They may not be wrong. At least some believe that they face violence at the hands of locals should they move to a township. The history shows that they could be right. At least some are convinced that, should they fall into the hands of the government bureaucracy, their suffering will be worse than anything they could experience at the church – and nobody has proven otherwise.
If government agencies can provide shelter and food and a prospect of a future to these refugees – and can convince them of the fact – then there will be a rush for the exits of the church. If they need to be forced out, then the system has failed.