Over the weekend, a rather curious—but hardly unexpected—joint operation between the police, army and Home Affairs targeted the five hundred foreign nationals huddled in Johannesburg’s world famous Central Methodist Church. There was very little protocol, and even less humanity, invested in this operation. Which is becoming standard practice in South Africa’s great xenophobic clean-up. By RICHARD POPLAK.
Last year, during a reporting trip to the Central African Republic, I woke up one morning in the maligned little city of Grimari. I had slept that night in a Catholic mission that was home to refugees of that country’s civil war, hundreds of people crowded into white UNHCR tents and abandoned classrooms. This city within a city was presided over by an understandably disgruntled priest named Father Stefano Fazzion, Order of Comboni, who had over the course of the previous year watched the non-country balkanise into more and more non-countries, each as violent as the next. “These people have nowhere to go,” he told me. “They are desperate.”
If there was an award for the most dysfunctional place on Earth, I thought at the time, CAR would take it in a walk.
These days, I’m not so sure.
I was reminded of the Grimari Catholic Mission when I drove on Sunday into Fordsburg, Johannesburg, and towards Dragon City Mall. I parked behind a green tractor-trailer emblazoned with a Gift of the Givers logo, and entered a scale-model of the Grimari mission. There were some small differences: the church was shabbier, and Methodist in denomination rather than Catholic, while the seventy or so traumatised, bedraggled humans living in white tents and abandoned classrooms were not fleeing religious persecution, but the pervasive, never-ending Afrophobic harassment that has—let’s face it—come to define South Africa’s democratic era.
I was summoned to Gift of the Givers by a Zimbabwean woman named Linda Samadziripi, who I had spoken on Friday, only hours after she and dozens of other women and children were dragged out of Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church by the now familiar conglomeration of jackbooted hacks who descend on squatter camps, township hostels and church basements in the early hours of the morning.
Central Methodist is, of course, the ground zero of Johannesburg’s “xenophobia” narrative—the place that, during the 2008 violence, housed thousands of foreign nationals, an ad hoc downtown refugee camp presided over at the time by the love-him-or-hate-him Bishop Paul Verryn. Hundreds—nay, thousands—of stories were told about the church and its huddled masses, who slept on the pews, on the stairs and in the filthy basement, hiding out from the harsh hospitality meted out by their South African hosts.
Central Methodist has never stopped being Central Methodist, mostly because Afrophobic violence has continued to be Afrophobic violence. And so the church still houses dozens of asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom have their paperwork in order, some of whom do not. When Paul Verryn was hounded out (or left on his own accord, depending on whom you ask) late last year, these people were left without a protector, and the new superintendent has seemed determined to clear the church of this eight-year-old scourge. There are, of course, many ways in which to do this legally and humanely—South Africa is, at the point of this writing, still a constitutional democracy. But on Friday morning at 3:30am, the SAPS, Metro Police, soldiers from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), and a contingent of Home Affairs officials hit the church under the cover of darkness, kicking down doors, rounding up the residents.
At about 16:30 that afternoon, Linda Samadziripi and seventeen other Zimbabwean women, along with ten or so children, found themselves at Gift of the Givers. The intervening hours are a precise explication of what this country has become, and a very good suggestion of where it might be going.
* * *
I sat with Linda Samadziripi, her young daughter Kimberly, an enraged woman named Beauty Jeki, and eight other Zimbabwean women on plastic chairs in a dusty clearing. The women hadn’t changed in days, and the kids were shoeless.
“We were sleeping,” Samadziripi told me, “when the police and the soldiers came. They did not give us time to change from our nighties. They just took us outside and said, ‘Where are your papers?’”
At first, Samadziripi and her co-residents believed this to be a routine sweep. On 28 January of this year—about a month before “King” Goodwill Zwelithini made his fateful pronouncements regarding his fellow Africans, thus kicking off the latest round of unpleasantness—the cops and Home Affairs had arrived at the church in order to process asylum seekers. Samadziripi and most of the other women filled out the paperwork, presented their passports, and had their fingerprints taken. They had heard nothing from Home Affairs in the intervening months, and so assumed that this latest visit was just bureaucratic handholding.
But nope. Thirty minutes after first waking up the residents, the cops and soldiers turned nasty. They entered the basement rooms waving automatic weapons, rounding up all the sleepers. “Guns were all over! We were scared. I said to the officer, I have to change my sanitary pad,” said Samadziripi, “and he sent two police with me, because he thought I would run.” The kids did not have time to put on underwear, nor their shoes, nor their jerseys, and the police and soldiers did not allow the residents to grab blankets for the cold. Five hundred people were eventually herded onto buses, and driven to Johannesburg’s Central Police Station, AKA John Vorster.
Photo: A room in the Joburg Central Methodist Church where people were living in crammed conditions is strewn with belongings after arrests occurred in the early hours of Friday morning. While belongings were everywhere, there was almost no one staying in the church after the raid. (Greg Nicolson)
Their stay there was an unhappy one, as stays at John Vorster have always been.
The Zimbabweans were, according Samadziripi and Jeki, forced to use a room without a toilet and a bathroom. A man was beaten—they saw copious amounts of blood on the walls. The kids were not fed until much later in the afternoon. They were threatened with physical violence. They noticed that the statements they were asked to sign gave the place of their arrest as Harrison and Jeppe streets—“How can women with kids be walking at Harrison and Jeppe at three in the morning? They were lying.” Beauty Jeki asked me. “So now we are confused. Was that paper we signed in January for something else? And what were they hiding when they raided us at the church?”
* * *
Tapiwa Marima, the Zimbabwean social worker who manages the Gift of the Givers camp, was having a bad day. That morning, the infant son of a Malawian refugee passed away, having contracted pneumonia when his parents were on the run after fleeing Durban.
“They think I am an evil person,” said Marima, pointing to the Zimbabwean women. “They think I prefer Malawians.”
Photo: Gertrude Mandeya, 64-years-old and from Harare, says most of those staying with her had been arrested. Packing her bags, she hopes to find alternative accommodation, either in a shelter in Hillbrow or with family back in Zimbabwe. She says the police who came were “very cheeky” because they shouted and assaulted residents. (Greg Nicolson)
The Gift of the Giver camp was Africa in microcosm—divided by borders and ethnicities, Malawians on one side, Zimbabweans on the other, and Mozambicans somewhere in between. A balkanised purgatory. The Malawians, most of whom had come from KZN, had been the victims of real violence, Marima told me, while the Zimbabweans were “secondary” victims, the collateral damage in what seemed like a coordinated attempt to rid Johannesburg of asylum seekers.
We were, after all, in the midst of Operation Fiela, or “sweep out the dirt”, implemented in order to wipe away illicit drugs, weapons, crime and people. The term “fiela” recalls—perhaps deliberately?—Operation Murambatsvina (Shona for “clean out the rubbish”), the series of hyper-violent township renovations that Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF instituted in 2005. Murambatsvina hit the country’s most vulnerable urban citizens, who were thought to be potential Movement of Democratic Change voters, and in turn caused a refugee surge that sent those same people to South Africa seeking asylum.
And we know how that’s turned out.
These people were southern Africa’s unwanted, so much garbage to be pinged back and forth across borders until they simply disappeared. They were not tied to any government, could not be relied upon to provide votes or support, and were therefore of no use.
“These Malawians just want to go home,” Marima told me. “They are running for their lives. But the Zimbabweans just want to be processed. So we are advocating to the police—don’t separate kids from their parents! Don’t arrest women and children! We had five kids show up here, no parents. We had to try and trace them. [The authorities] now know we agree to accept people, so they bring people here.”
On top of all of this, Marima was also forced to try to quell a minor uprising by the Zimbabwean women, who insisted that they were getting short shrift at the expense of the Malawians.
“There is a chemistry of racism in this place,” Beauty Jeki told me. “If there is food, the Malawians get first. For us, from Zim, they will not allow visitors. There is real racism inside this place.” Jeki’s face was twisted with rage and fear, and she told me that she would likely lose her job as a chef at Absa towers. Her kids were being housed in Benoni. She didn’t know where she would be tomorrow. Her only recourse was to turn her ire on the Malawians.
“Where will they take us, these people?” she asked me. “Maybe they will just dump us in the sea.”
* * *
Central Methodist Church was quiet when I visited on Sunday night, but there was no escaping the undertow of menace that permeated the joint. My guide down into the basement was a slight, wiry Zimbabwean named Kristof Rakabope, and he introduced me to the twenty or so people who remained. They were mostly women with children, lying on filthy mattresses—waiting. Their belongings were packed away in piles against the wall. The place was rank. Finally, the church was being cleansed.
Photo: The Joburg Methodist Church is cleaned after the police and army raided it and arrested foreigners without documents. (Greg Nicolson)
According to Rakabope, things had changed around these parts since Verryn left late last year. The new superintendent, while he had promised to help, had done no such thing. This latest raid, with guns and soldiers, was likely the end of the church’s history of housing the homeless. Rakabope showed me his papers—his asylum expired on 30 January, two days after he had filled out the paperwork as required by South African law. “I have done everything right,” he told me. “We have our papers here. Why did they come in January? Was it a trick?”
Photo: A young girl runs through the Methodist Church as others pack to leave. (Greg Nicolson)
Bishop Paul Verryn certainly thinks it might have been. When I spoke with him about the raids, he was clear on what they meant, on what they symbolised.
“I think as far as policing and Home Affairs were concerned, it was the piece d’resistance to invade Central Methodist. And I use the term “invade” in the fullest sense, and to do so at 3am—which reminds us of the huge fascist regime during Apartheid. They have so much legislation at their disposal, and yet to do all of this in a high-handed, bullying way augers badly for all of us.”
I asked Verryn why the church had been hit now—why it needed to fall as a symbol so late in this wave of brutal Afrophobic theatrics. “It’s a helluva sensitive question for me to answer, but I don’t think that there was any secret that some very senior lay people wanted to get rid of the refugees.”
And how high up did this, in his opinion, go?
“Put it this way, I am not convinced that the government’s mouthing against xenophobia isn’t hypocritical. This name, Operation Felia, using the same terminology as in Zimbabwe—it’s close on sick. They are equating drugs and weapons with foreign nationals. And when station commanders doing the arresting are often in contempt of the law, I would want to allege that he has orders from the highest authorities in this country. I don’t think there’s a Third Force. I think there’s a First Force.”
But Paul Verryn was not done.
“We are behaving far more like the Europeans in terms of access [for asylum seekers],” Verryn said. “I’m not ashamed of saying this—one of the gifts that God gave this country was foreign nationals. They’ve enriched us and enabled us to break the walls between us and the rest of Africa. We are a supposedly Christian country, but you could not identify a more refined blasphemy than this.” He paused for effect. “We are spitting in God’s face,” he told me. “Jesus Himself was a refugee in Africa. We are morally reprehensible.”
* * *
The Zimbabwean women in Gift of the Givers will be deported—sorry, repatriated—on Wednesday. According to Tapiwa Marima, the Malawians have almost been processed. And shortly the Mozambicans will be too. Regardless of what stage their paperwork was in, or whether they had a legal right to claim asylum or work here, most of the 121 people will be gone. Home Affairs did not get back to me at the time of this writing, to explain the discrepancy regarding the asylum paperwork that was filled out by the Central Methodist residents on 28 January of this year, still unprocessed, and the fact that those who filled the paperwork out are now being shipped out of the country.
Count that as another victory for Operation Fiela.
The city within a city that exists in Grimari has become a permanent fixture, a nowhere for those caught in between. When a country learns to live with those wormholes—those purgatorial non-places—the very idea of a country starts to fray. It’s beginning here. And the cleaning up has just begun. DM
Photo: The stairwell in the Joburg Methodist Church where some people slept. Despite the church’s decision to no longer provide refuge, a few hundred people were said to still be staying there while trying to find alternative accommodation. (Greg Nicolson)
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