When the news of the first xenophobic attacks started to break two weeks ago, I was in an idyllic setting at an up market conference venue in Pretoria. Every day we were treated to meals that could feed a number of families and were sleeping in luxury suites far exceeding what I am used to and what most South Africans would have in the very best of times.
Being in Gauteng the province affected at that stage – in an environment so different to the South Africa being depicted on the television every morning made the reality of the week of 13 May 2008 strangely surreal to me. The more the situation worsened, the more the conference venue luxury and pampering stayed the same. Our main concerns were around the settings of the air conditioner, while outside our country was starting to burn. Our national fabric was unraveling and I was sleeping under cotton percale linen.The following week had the most horrendous barrage of violent photographs splashed across the media. The reality of the situation could no longer be ignored. People were burning and the media was making sure that every one knew about it. At this point I was back in Cape Town and the warnings and nervous whispering of the violence spreading to the Western Cape were all around us. I optimistically hoped that any plans to fuel the fires in Western Cape would be extinguished at the planning stages.
NGOs in the Mother City put their resources on a shared table and developed an emergency disaster management plan. Photographs were taken of willing volunteers, who were prepared to have their face on an anti-xenophobia poster, and plans for a mass march showing South Africa’s rejection of the recent attacks were underway. The NGO sector was really working together. A real sense of being in control and being busy offered comfort. Colleagues joined TAC and what looked like a crowd of over 1 000 concerned South Africans in a march against xenophobia and for a brief moment, it felt really good to be a South African again. But then the phone calls started coming in. As we were marching in town, so attacks were taking place in Khayelitsha. Concerned friends and acquaintances phoning each other in a spontaneous network. We rushed back to the office and tried to confirm reports, and get the information out to all the relevant parties before too much damage was done. That soothing sense of control was shattered and was replaced by disbelief and an absolute dread of what lay ahead. After an emotionally gruelling afternoon, it was time to wish beloved colleagues a good weekend. My toughest moment was not knowing what horrors would face the people in our city generally, and the people that I have grown to love specifically. A hug goodbye and a “please call me if you need me” seemed totally insufficient. Watching the press all weekend trying to assess the situation from more of a distance was unsettling in its own way. Things look calm from my quiet, removed suburb – but knowing about the threats and the fear in the community made me aware that those targeted by the violence would not have to be physically beaten and attacked in the true sense of the word. No matter what – the damage had been done. The betrayal had taken place and foreigners throughout our country would have sleepless nights, would be terrified to go home and would be devastated by fear. The emotional beating will continue long after the physical violence subsides.
My own process has been softened by me being able to help with sorting of emergency supplies and working with some of the wonderful volunteers who always seem to spring up in the face of crisis. South Africa is a beautiful country and is the home to many beautiful people, and I saw this first hand when members of the public donated time, clothing and other much needed resources and others took these supplies to the various emergency accommodation sites in the city. As I am writing this, so there has been an announcement of unconfirmed reports of violence in Soetwater. The crisis continues, but in this, a large part of South Africa examines her soul, and rises in love, concern and unity.I am South African because I am African!