Things Fall Apart in the church of refugees

By Karabo Mafolo and Sandisiwe Shoba 16 January 2020

Dozens of refugees have been kicked out of the church after the group split into two opposing groups. Refugee leaders Papy Sukami and JP Balous had a falling out over the December period which saw Sukami's faction banished from the building. 8 January 2020. Photo: Karabo Mafolo.

The centre cannot hold. Two and half months into the Cape Town refugee crisis, things are unravelling at the Central Methodist Mission. The group of displaced migrants have split into two hostile groups, while violence, court cases and allegations hang over them. Still, they hold on to the glimmer of hope for group resettlement out of a South Africa known for its xenophobia.

It’s another scorching hot afternoon in Cape Town. Outside the Central Methodist Mission on Greenmarket Square, the air is thick with the stench of urine. Yet the area is bustling with activity as children play in the streets and women cook large pots of stew over open fires.

But all is not well among the refugees. A series of makeshift tents has popped up on two adjacent streets near the church. Underneath, groups of people lay listlessly, escaping the heat. These displaced migrants have been banished outside the church building, after a bitter dispute between refugee leaders, Papy Sukami and Jean-Pierre Balous, caused a split two weeks ago .

Now, Balous’ supporters dwell indoors while Sukami’s faction is squatting on the pavement.

In a strange twist, both leaders were arrested on separate criminal charges. Despite being released on bail, both have been conditionally barred from the place of worship, leaving the two groups of refugees rudderless.

Outside, traders have complained that business has been disrupted. The mass of people sleeping on Greenmarket Square has become a deterrent to buyers, especially tourists, who usually frequent the popular market. Some traders have been forced to pack up and leave as they are unable to pay rent, while others lose more and more income by the day.

The people are suffering

It’s been two and a half months since Reverend Alan Storey opened the church doors to the group of protesters who’d been forcibly removed from outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in St George’s Mall.

But sadly, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.

With close to 600 people living in the church, the building is overcrowded and has become a health and safety hazard. The church only has two bathrooms servicing the large numbers packed inside.

Many make use of the toilets in Greenmarket Square, but refugees complain that these are locked in the evenings.

The lack of sanitation and overcrowded conditions resulted, in 2019, in reported outbreaks of TB and diarrhoea.

At the time, Gift of the Givers was supplying aid to the church, but the organisation was kicked out in early November 2019, after project manager Ali Sablay called their demands for group resettlement “unrealistic” during a radio interview. This angered the refugee leadership who told Gift of the Givers to leave, roughly a week after they’d arrived.

St John Ambulance was providing health services at the church, screening patients for illnesses and referring them to the nearest hospital – usually the District Six Community Health Centre.

Andrico Staphanus, who runs the Community Health Work Department at St John, said the organisation had to withdraw from the church in late December 2019 when the situation became volatile.

We had to stop… for the security of our community health workers.”

A woman sits as a fellow displaced migrant braids her hair into tight cornrows. Despite deteriorating conditions in the Central Methodist Church in Cape Town, many refugees are continuing their daily lives. 8 January 2020. Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba

He said St John tried to return when they heard there was a possible outbreak of chickenpox among the refugees.

We tried to go in twice, we even spoke to the Law Enforcement and police to see if they could help us to gain access into the church, but that was unsuccessful, they (the refugees) wouldn’t allow us in.”

The building is also a serious fire risk.

Storey had previously said there weren’t enough escape routes, and many continue to cook on open fires outside the church.

But sheltering the refugees was always a temporary solution.

In early December 2019, Storey wrote in an update on the Central Methodist Mission blog that he’d asked the group to leave:

The leaders announced this morning (5 December) to me and to those present in the church, that they will vacate CMM by the 12th December. For all the reasons stated in my previous updates, I do hope this commitment is honoured.”

But after the City of Cape Town took the group to court for allegedly flouting City by-laws and disrupting business in and around Greenmarket Square, their stay was “extended”.

The case is due back in court on 22 January.

Services at the Central Methodist Mission have also been moved to the Observatory Methodist Church because of the volatile situation.

Searching for solutions

In the meantime, a continued series of meetings has been held between the refugees and stakeholders, including the City of Cape Town, UNHCR, The Department of Home Affairs and the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to address the refugees’ demands. The last string of meetings happened from 6 to 8 January 2020.

There are yet to be any clear solutions.

Since their sit-in protest at the UNHCR offices, the displaced migrants have been demanding group resettlement out of South Africa to a third, “safe” country. But as the UNHCR has repeatedly made clear, group resettlement is not an option.

There will be no group resettlement for any of the protesters as resettlement is a very limited option for persons of concern with specific protection needs. South Africa is a country of its own laws and system for refugees, most of whom have existing living arrangements,” UNHCR spokesperson, Heinn Shin, told Daily Maverick.

With group resettlement off the table, what remains is voluntary repatriation to their countries of origin, possible resettlement on a case-by-case basis and finally local integration.

Commissioner Chris Nissen of the SAHRC said all stakeholders are “developing a road map for safe integration”.

No more South Africa’

But the refugees are fed up with “xenophobic South Africa”. A large banner erected above one of the camps outside the church makes this clear:

No more SA, refugees are not welcome… only xenophobia is our food that we eat daily basis.”

Displaced migrants at the Central Methodist Church split into two hostile groups after two of their leaders had a bitter falling out. Both leaders have been barred from entering the CBD after being arrested, then released on bail. 8 January 2020. Photo: Karabo Mafolo

Jimmy Mbiya from DRC has been in South Africa for 15 years and still has asylum seeker papers. “I still have that [asylum seeker] paper that says I can stay for two months and then go renew it. With that paper, you can’t open a bank account. I was a bakery manager, they asked me to go open a bank account and with that [asylum seeker] paper, they’ll never allow me to, so I had to resign because they’ll never pay me,” Mbiya told Daily Maverick.

Kande Serge from the DRC says he fled Libya in 2011 because of the xenophobia he experienced there. “I left my life there and I came here to give myself a second chance.” Serge says that he doesn’t have a specific country that he’d like to be resettled to but wants to be resettled so he can “start to rebuild for the last time”.

The Department of Home Affairs said, in court, that they’d done an assessment of the people dwelling at the church and found that 90 were undocumented, while 68 had asylum seeker permits.

This was during the last hearing in the interdict case brought by the City of Cape Town against the refugees.

Advocate Seth Nthai, who was representing the department, said Home Affairs was ready and willing to conduct a status determination for the displaced migrants but needed a suitable location to conduct the process.

The City of Cape Town was tasked with providing the group with temporary alternative accommodation but insists there is no space available for the group of approximately 600 men, women and children.

The City had argued that the group did not qualify for emergency housing as they were “exercising their right to protest”.

Executive Director for Safety and Security, Richard Bosman, told Daily Maverick on Tuesday 14 January 2020 that the City held an internal meeting with the mayor Dan Plato to discuss the situation but refused to “comment further” on the matter.

Life goes on in the cramped church

Meanwhile, life continues for refugees living in the church. Despite the hot and cramped conditions, children run and play between the pews and aisles. Others lay on raggedy mattresses watching videos on their phones. A woman is seen getting her hair braided near the altar. Around the corner, a Burundian man has set up a barber shop where he cuts hair for free.

A family of four sit down for lunch at the Central Methodist Mission. They are a part of a group of Burundians who have claimed a small corner at the back of the church. 8 January 2020. Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba

Groups of families have claimed sections of the church, with many choosing to stick with their country folk. A Burundian family of four is seen eating a lunch of bread, chicken and slap chips. The mother begrudgingly lets us take a picture of them.

For now, media are still allowed inside the building, but people are searched upon entry. The team of “security” at the door question people regarding their business at the church. Names are also taken down.

Although those outside are “free” to speak to the media, inside there is still a strict policy that refugees are prohibited from being interviewed unless granted permission to do so by their “leader”.

Meddy, a Burundian, at the Central Methodist Church has opened a makeshift barbershop where he cuts hair for free. 8 January 2020. Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba

But Balous, who has been followed by a string of horrific allegations, was arrested on New Year’s day on eight charges, including five of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm.

On 10 January, he was granted R2,000 bail on condition he stays away from the CBD unless given permission to enter by the police.

The Congolese from the Kivu region is an asylum seeker and member of an NPO called Women and Children at Concern (WCC) based in Grassy Park. His supporters claim that the NPO pioneered the protest and therefore Balous should be recognised as its official leader.

Questions have been raised about the legitimacy of the organisation, but according to Aline Bukuru, WCC’s founder and Balous’ wife, the NPO is “well known” by the government:

It is working with refugees, asylum seekers and other people of concern,” she told Daily Maverick.

Spokesperson for the Department of Social Development, Lumka Oliphant, confirmed that “the organisation is registered and fully compliant”.

The NPO was registered on 26 April 2017.

But the embattled leader’s track record is marred with incidences of alleged violence. Balous was part of the group that assaulted a delegation that included faith leaders and members of civil society organisations on 15 November 2019. He was accused of trying to gouge out the eyes of Pastor Moise Awilo, who was part of the delegation.

In a separate incident, Kande Serge Kande, a Congolese pastor in Sukami’s faction, claims Balous attacked his elderly mother:

On Wednesday [1 January] my mom wanted to use the toilet inside [the church] because there’s no toilet out here. They pushed her, she fell down and hurt her knee. She’s 66 years old.”

Kande said he would be laying charges.

Prince Raymond, from Congo, plays an intense game of draft inside the Central Methodist Church at Greenmarket Square. He is one of close to 600 displaced migrants seeking refuge at the church which has been deemed unsafe following violent altercations. 8 January 2020. Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba

Balous has been accused of misleading protesters, and harbouring a separate personal agenda apart from the protest.

One example is how information from the series of meetings with refugee leaders and officials has always been relayed to the displaced migrants by Balous and his team.

The delegation which went to the church on 15 November had tried to intercept this methodology, attempting to speak to the protesters themselves. After violence broke out, Balous had told the media he felt “undermined” by the tactic.

A church divided between embattled leaders

Although Balous claims to represent refugees, the split in the church shows he doesn’t speak for everyone.

Sukami, who was also arrested on separate charges and restricted from the CBD, was released on bail on 9 January.

Sukami’s record is far from clean, either. Sukami was arrested for the alleged robbery and assault of two Congolese journalists outside the UNHCR offices in October 2019. The journalists accused him of being the “ringleader of a criminal gang”.

Balous had told the media during an impromptu briefing at the church on 14 January that Sukami was nothing more than a language interpreter for some of the Congolese protesters.

I was using the short guy to speak Lingala,” he said facetiously, adding that Sukami was “never a leader”.

Balous, who is not supposed to enter the CBD without police permission, said he’d first gone to Cape Town SAPS where they allowed him to go to the church.

The church itself is a volatile and near-deadly environment.

The night the group split into factions, three men were arrested for possession of dangerous weapons.

Reports have also surfaced that police are investigating sexual assault and assault charges at the church after a group of men allegedly attempted to rape a woman not involved in the protest, who had come to visit her family members living at the church.

Balous said the report was a “lie”.

Kande, who sleeps outside, fears he will be killed if he attempts entering the church:

If I try to go inside there, I’m supposed to give my last word because I know that I will die.”

He says conditions outside are inhumane:

We are living like animals,” says Kande, adding that if they can’t access the toilets, they either have to “hold it in” or “go in their clothes”.

Displaced migrants at the Central Methodist Church split into two hostile groups after two of their leaders had a bitter falling out. Both leaders have been barred from entering the CBD after being arrested, then released on bail. 8 January 2020. Photo: Karabo Mafolo

He claimed there was a shortage of resources for the children.

Our mothers are ripping their shirts to use as nappies.”

Fundraising efforts under scrutiny

Questions have also arisen regarding donations coming into the church.

Sukami had accused Balous of pocketing money raised through crowdfunding. He referred specifically to an online backabuddy fundraiser organised by a documentary filmmaker named Amy Kaye.

The fundraiser has collected R80,666.98 in donations. Some contributors have given more than R1,000. Funds have even come in from the US to assist the refugees. The initial target for the campaign was R75,000. It has been increased to R85’000.

According to Kaye (who’s real surname is Kramer) the crowdfunding campaign was started “after members of the public wanted to make donations to ease the plight of the refugees”.

The page includes a proposed fee breakdown for the donations: R30,000 for nappies, wet wipes and talcum powder; R25,000 for toiletries and medicine and R20,000 for food, toys and education. This was before the target amount was increased.

She’s used her personal Facebook page to post updates on events at the church and seems to have a very close relationship with Balous.

The fundraiser is a seemingly noble gesture. But according to Gift of the Givers spokesperson Badr Kazi, the issue lies with the lack of transparency on Amy’s part.

As an organisation that is open to scrutiny all the time, then everyone else must be open to scrutiny – in other words they must be transparent about what they’re doing,” said Kazi.

Kramer told Daily Maverick that the funds were used to buy medication, food, sanitation (nappies, wet wipes) and clothing “based on the instructions given by the leaders of the refugee community”.

According to backabuddy, Kramer’s campaign, like all backabuddy campaigns, went through a vetting process before it was launched online.

We request details of references as well as documents to verify their campaign’s validity,” said Chief Operations Officer, Catherine Du Plooy.

On the fundraising page, Kramer has indicated that funds are being deposited into her personal bank account.

She did not respond when asked whether she kept records of her purchases.

But Du Plooy said that Kramer has “forwarded invoices” to backabuddy relating to all purchases she’s made to assist the refugees:

These purchases have included; paying for a funeral, sanitary items, airtime, food and medicine. Backabuddy said it would provide Daily Maverick with the invoices as proof of the purchases.

Sandra Bahibitugu, a refugee at the church and member of WCC, confirmed that Kramer had contributed funds to the burial of three teenagers from the church who had drowned at Rocklands Beach in Sea Point in late November 2019.

We had to pay for the mortuary and the coffins. She spent a lot of money, she even gave money from her pocket to pay for that.”

Bahibitugu said Kramer had not told her how much the funeral cost.

We didn’t ask her, we just trusted her. It was her effort.”

Balous shared an invoice with Daily Maverick showing R20,000 was spent at Thunzi Funeral Services for the burial of the three teenagers.

Bahibitugu is in charge of monitoring donations that come into the church. She said the last time Kramer told her how much money was raised, it was R15,000. This was before the tragic drownings. However, this must have been quite some time ago as by 25 November the campaign had raised more than R70,000. However, without proof of expenditure, it is unclear how much was actually in the account at the time.

No updates have been given on Kramer’s social media pages about how much money has been spent, or how much is left. She’s frequently promoted the Backabuddy fundraiser and asked for additional donations such as medicine for the refugees.

The money from the fundraiser was also supposed to assist the group during their trek to Namibia.

JP said maybe that money can help us with the transport and everything because the children cannot walk to Namibia by foot and maybe transport can carry the luggage and so forth,” alleged Bahibitugu.

Jimmy Mbiya, a refugee from the DRC, and a Sukami supporter, accused Kramer of benefiting from the refugees’ plight.

Those white ladies keep the money in their account, while we suffer here.”

He said very little information had been shared with the refugees about Kramer’s campaign and believed that aid was only reserved for Balous’ supporters.

Cult-like factional leadership

Kande, the Congolese pastor, also shared that he had suspicions about Bukuru – Balous’ wife.

Now his wife is here, we can’t trust his wife.”

Bukuru was previously a part of the group of refugees also protesting outside the UNHCR offices in Pretoria.

I’ve seen her before in the media when they were talking about Pretoria. Many of the people who were in Pretoria are in prison. Why did she come here? She just left them there. She came here to confuse people. When you’re a leader, you have to stay with your people.”

He felt that she was helping Balous promote WCC, but asserted that the protest was never led by the NGO.

We’re not an organisation here. We are refugees.”

Regarding whether Gift of the Givers would return to provide aid to the refugees, Kazi said it was dependent on whether a solution was found to the crisis at the church.

The church is not a place where people should be living. It is not suitable for human habitation,” he said, adding that the organisation was faced with a “moral conundrum” of whether assisting the refugees in their current state would be ethical.

We may propagate an inhumane solution where people are suffering in the church. We can’t perpetuate that.”

Archive Photo: On 3 November, 2019, Alan Storey addresses the congregation at the Central Methodist Mission after providing refuge to displaced migrants. (Photo: Noah Tobias)

Reverend Alan Storey declined to give comment on the refugee situation, but in an update on the Central Methodist Mission’s blog on Friday 10 January he said the church could not “provide sanctuary to violent groups” and would pursue “other avenues” to address the crisis.

But, watching mothers bathe their naked children beneath the unforgiving rays of the sun, one might ponder the level of desperation that led hundreds to seek a man-made rapture out of our democratic land.

Perhaps the distressing human drama unfolding on Greenmarket Square is a symbol of how badly we’ve failed the “foreigner in our midst”.

And as many pray for a just and peaceful solution to this complex crisis, the words of Reverend Storey are worth remembering: “When our desire for things to ‘return to normal’ becomes greater than our desire for the well-being of people – especially the very vulnerable – then we need to stop, check ourselves and hold each other accountable to another way, truth and life.” DM


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or if you are already an Insider.


SA mining industry, government and unions ‘agree to sector reboot from 16 April’

By Ed Stoddard