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Grahamstown: For UNHCR, affected families must be the only “stakeholders”

Paddy O'Halloran is currently a masters student in Political and International Studies at Rhodes University. His research interrogates race and space through the politics of social movements.

Grahamstown’s month-long unresolved xenophobic crisis has finally gained international attention. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) will convene a meeting in Grahamstown on Monday morning to address the needs of displaced spaza shop owners and their families. They have been in limbo since looting on 21 October, receiving insufficient support, with many unable to go back to their shops in town.

The UNHCR must take a different approach to the crisis than local government has. They must treat the affected people as the authorities on their situation, needs, and experiences. They must understand the reasons why, on Wednesday night and Thursday morning last week, a number of affected families held a vigil because of the municipality and police’s failure to provide for their safety, sustenance, and to treat them “as human beings.” It is a critical moment. The UNHCR has the opportunity to begin to resolve the current crisis, but only if the people are their focus.

The precedent set by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is grim. On Friday, 20 November, SAHRC held a meeting for “stakeholders” in Grahamstown’s City Hall, chaired by Commissioner Aubrey Mdazana. There was hope among the affected people, prior to the meeting, that SAHRC would finally provide them with support that has been urgently needed since 21 October. However, descending the staircase in City Hall after the three hour meeting, two men whose shops were looted called the meeting “a waste of time.” They said they were finished with the municipality, because it had not helped them, and was not trying to help them. They said that SAHRC was no better. “None of them listen,” explained one man.

Grocott’s Mail in Grahamstown reports that the meeting was marked by “tensions” and by “accusations and counter-accusations,” but fails to elaborate on their significance. The “tensions” and “accusations” point to the reasons there remains a crisis in Grahamstown. Nonetheless, Human Rights commissioner Aubrey Mdazana did not permit time for the airing of immediately relevant issues that will, unaddressed, continue to keep people in danger. In particular, he attempted to contain any criticism of the municipality. This obscures fundamental problems.

First is dishonesty on the part of officials of Makana Municipality. At Friday’s meeting, Acting Municipal Manager, Riana Meiring, gave a false account of the municipality’s support and reintegration of the displaced people. She claimed that they had made “quite a bit of progress,” and reintegrated most of the shop owners. On the contrary, say members of the displaced community, those who have re-opened their shops have done so of their own accord, knowing that the situation in Grahamstown is still dangerous for them, and that it has not been ameliorated by the municipality or police. Shop owners had received threats last week that looting would occur again on 23 November. A week earlier, a shop in Extension 9, that was emptied on 21 October, was looted again.

People were not “reintegrated;” they opened shop because they had no choice.

Furthermore, Meiring did not announce that, on Thursday evening, many of these shop owners had evacuated their stock once again because of new threats. She did not know how many people were displaced as of Friday’s meeting. There were “a few,” she said, “50 or 60,” while the people themselves report over 150. She also claimed that the municipality had been providing food throughout the month. Displaced people have denied this, saying instead that food has come from private donations and from the Red Cross. The municipal officials also did not explain where or how displaced people would be accommodated going forward, despite informing the meeting that the deadline for the current accommodation was on Friday, and that the municipality has no money to continue paying for it. Commissioner Mdazana was content to summarise that there was “some sort of gentlemen’s agreement” regarding accommodation, and closed the matter.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) representative at Friday’s meeting was equally poor. He made no mention of the local taxi associations, who are known to have instigated the first round of looting. However, he clearly believed that the threats and evacuations of Thursday should be blamed on the people who had participated in the vigil. He described having remonstrated for over an hour on Thursday morning with some of the demonstrators to stop their actions. Meanwhile, a crowd gathered across the street, shouting xenophobic insults, and were not confronted by police. This is consistent with SAPS action both before and during the crisis. They have made no attempt to prevent or contest xenophobic sentiment in their community. However, blaming the people who have been threatened for the threats is a new and contemptible development on the part of SAPS in Grahamstown. Nevertheless, the SAHRC meeting concluded that the program of reintegration must be led by the municipality.

Several sermons on unity notwithstanding, the meeting was blatantly sectarian. In particular, there was hostility towards Ayanda Kota, Organiser for the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), and representative of the Makana Anti-Xenophobia Concerned Group, a group formed on 22 October at the offices of Masifunde Education and Development Project Trust, a local non-governmental organisation. The hostility was not unique to Friday. Despite working most closely with affected people during the crisis, Kota and Fundile Mafongosi, director of Masifunde, were thrown out of a meeting of the Joint Operations Committee (for reintegration) at the Grahamstown Police Station on 6 November. Kota was among those hopeful that SAHRC would have made a difference in the current situation.

Friday, Councillor Mabhuti Matyumza of the African National Congress (ANC), and Mohammed Mooraad sought to silence Kota, who tried to explain to Commissioner Mdazana how the municipality has failed the affected people. Both Councillor Matyumza and Mooraad alluded to someone “destabilising” Grahamstown before elections, with the none-too-subtle insinuation that Kota was involved. Mooraad also called Kota the representative of a “false Anti-Xenophobia Group.” However, when a woman among the affected people was allowed to clarify the situation by Commissioner Mdazana—she would not have been asked but for a strong suggestion from a member of the meeting—she said that “only Ayanda” should speak on their behalf.

It should be noted that Councillor Matyumza is reported by community members to have voiced xenophobic sentiments to a crowd on the second day of the crisis. In a meeting Friday evening the affected women shouted him out of the room. In 2011, Mooraad allegedly offered a bribe for “dirty secrets” that could be used to defame Kota. The bribe is attested to by affidavit. Moreover, Mooraad appeared alone at the vigil on Wednesday night, and shouted abuse at the families gathered in front of City Hall. “The ANC will come for you,” he allegedly told them. Mooraad allegedly rents offices to the ANC in Grahamstown. Some shop owners also believe that he is buying and selling looted goods. One Friday no one questioned the legitimacy of either the councillor or Mooraad as “stakeholders” in this crisis.

There was one glaring exclusion from the SAHRC “stakeholders” meeting. Only four men and four women of the affected people were present. They sat in the back, unintroduced. Except for the brief instance involving Kota, no one, not even Commissioner Mdazana, ask them for input in a meeting which directly affected their lives. Commissioner Mdazana and others frequently referred to them as “non-nationals.” In the street after the meeting, one of the men said, “We are not ‘non-nationals.’ We are South African nationals.” Indeed, most are South African citizens.

The absence of most of the affected people was not an oversight. At the start of the meeting, the Commissioner for Gender Equality had asked, “Where are the women?” The four women had not yet arrived. Throughout the past month, while many of the men have been isolated in temporary accommodation outside of town, the women have been working closely with UPM and Masifunde to arrange for food and supplies, and to develop plans for reintegration. The women have done infinitely more than any commission or organisation—more than anyone, in fact—to regain their place in the community. After Friday’s meeting, the women were found at Masifunde’s offices, angry because they had been told the venue at City Hall was full. Upstairs, some twenty seats had been empty.

The UNHCR need to succeed where SAHRC failed. When the UNHCR representatives come to Grahamstown on Monday, they should speak first to the shop owners and their families. These are the only “stakeholders” to consider. The UNHCR should compile their own data regarding the numbers of displaced people and their needs, based on the people’s knowledge, not on Makana municipality or SAPS officials’ word.

The crisis in Grahamstown has continued because local government have not responded appropriately and have not treated the affected people with respect. It has continued because of disreputable and manipulative local political and business interests that are deeply hostile towards those who are helping the affected people and towards some of the people themselves. Real progress has been thwarted by these interests. The UNHCR cannot allow this situation to continue. After the United Nations, to whom can the people turn for assistance? DM


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