It is with great sadness that I report on our visit to the campsite at De Doorns where a number of foreign nationals are sheltering after the xenophobic attacks which took place in mid November 2009. De Doorns is a small farming area just outside Worcester (approximately 250km outside Cape Town) and it is alleged that local people forcefully chased out the foreign nationals in their area (mostly Zimbabweans) over employment opportunities in the area.
As an organisation that strives for the rights of refugees, Sonke saw fit to undertake a fact finding mission to the campsite to assess the situation. During this visit we were fortunate to arrive at the same time as the UNHCR representative (Mr Phaladi Kotsie) and the Cape Town Refugee Centre official (Fwamba Mukole). Joining their delegation facilitated us in accessing the camp site as it was tightly guarded and not easy for people to get in.
The number of people here is estimated at 967 (mostly Zimbabweans) and we were informed by reliable sources from the Red Cross that of this number only 715 people have documents allowing them to be in South Africa; the rest (252) are undocumented. The people are housed in four big tent structures which are enclosed by wire net and guarded by two security officers at the main gate. The setup looks a lot like a community stadium, with temporary toilets at the back end of the structure. On the other side is a platform around which a number of men were seated listening to loud music.
During our visit, we had the opportunity to ask a few people about their experiences.
The first person we spoke to was Simon Sibanda, a 29 nine year old Zimbabwean whom we caught eating together with his wife Lenah. They told us that the camp was bad but that they had no choice as they had no other place to go. They sleep on the grass with nothing to serve as an under-felt or plastic sheet to protect dampness from soaking up from the ground (the ground becomes moist at night). Sibanda spoke about the lack of privacy at the camp, with young and old, men and women, boys and girls all sharing the space. There are also no proper cooking facilities. Sibanda and Lenah opted to make food for themselves, as they are not happy with the long queue. They suggested that there should be more food distribution points to reduce the time people have to stand in the line.
We also had n opportunity to speak to Patricia Rodzi, who explained that the place is not safe at all for women. There are also health and safety risks posed by the fire flame stoves that people are using to cook for themselves: these are not good for people’s health, especially children and pregnant women, and fires from the stoves might break out. She also spoke about the fact that the people at the camp had many of their goods stolen when they were chased out of the community.
The third person we spoke to was Primrose Madanyiki who is eight months pregnant. She told us that she still goes to De Doorns Health Care Centre for antenatal treatment (as matter of fact she was there this morning). When asked that she did not fear her life, she told us that she was not scared.
Shelton Office, a 26 year old Zimbabwean told us however, that the campsite was not at all safe. He complained about sanitation conditions and was concerned for the children who have had to miss school even though it is exam time. He also complained about the level of noise (with men like those we saw on our arrival, playing loud music late at night. In addition, the campsite is cold at night.
The last person we spoke to was Floyd Plight who told us about another major problem at the campsite: the shortage of bathrooms and showers (there are only 3 showers which only have cold water). He has told us that he and his family fear for their lives as earlier this year 7 people (Zimbabwean nationals) were burnt to death. He suggested that they wish to be taken to other parts of South Africa where there are no reports of xenophobia attacks. He particularly wanted to be sent to friends in Pietersburg. They were scared to go back to De Doorns.
We also had an opportunity to speak to a local official, Mpumelelo Cewana, who works at the Breede Valley Municipality. His view is that this violence should not be regarded as xenophobic, rather that it is a labour dispute which needs to be addressed by the Department of Labour and local politicians. According to him, the local people were not violent towards the Zimbabweans but merely asked them to move out of their area as they were not heeding the community’s calls not to work on public holidays or to participate in a stay-away. Cewana reported that the Zimbabweans in particular would say they are not interested in labour disputes as they are here to work. These differences around labour issues are exacerbated by the fact that labour brokers seem to prefer to contract with the foreign nationals at the expense of the locals. Apparently there is another theory that says that the attacks were fuelled by labour brokers who felt that farmers were hiring Zimbabweans directly and bypassing the brokerage fee. We were even told that some farmers said that local people were very lazy and do not want to work and that this was the reasons some farmers preferred to hire Zimbabweans. The spokesperson for the farmers refused to speak to us.
It was clear to us that although the situation has xenophobic elements, there are also deep economic and political issues. What is the appropriate response when locals ask foreign nationals to leave? What action should be taken against labour brokers if they had a hand in the situation?
It seems that the South African government needs to be prepared to deal with these kinds of situations on an ongoing basis. In addition to laws which protect the rights of foreign nationals there may need to be laws or policies which protect local labour as well, such as a quota system.
The major challenge lies with our government to be proactive than just reacting to these incidents. Law must in place even if it’s a quota on hiring people as we have noticed that in one farm on our way back coloured community was at work. Yes it was too early to suggest reintegration but also important to take people out of the area as some expressed to relocate.