Saturday, 14 June 2008

Caged in?

We're nearing the end of our election reporting seminar here in Johannesburg and I must say it's been a rewarding and enriching experience. I suggest you check out the very interesting blog our 13 South African colleagues set up:

"Ubuntu Bomzantsi - Togetherness in the South"

Here's what Alani, one of the participants, had to say about the ongoing xenophobic attacks in South Africa:

How ironic is our country’s fight for freedom?

During this 10 day long seminar we had the chance to visit Constitutional Hill and a refugee camp in Glenvista Rifle Range in Johannesburg. After these visits I can not stop myself from thinking that there are many similarities between the imprisonment of political prisoners back in the apartheid era and keeping refugees in camps around the country now.

Here are some comparisons to help you understand. Our tour guide at Constitutional Hill told us that the prisoners were mainly fed bread, porridge, tea and sometimes they got some coffee with a bit of sugar and fruit. This was a little more than the six slices of bread, tea and sometimes fruit that the government is feeding refugees in the camps at the moment. Even the sleeping arrangements have some similarities. Prisoners had only one blanket, while the refugees also have to do with just one. Sleeping on the floor, cement or a tent floor, is another thing these people have in common.

This has left me with the question: are we really free in South Africa?

Even we South Africans are been caged in by all the barriers we’ve erected around our homes and workplaces to keep us safe from the escalating crime we face.

By stating all of this, I want to bring home the point that many South Africans still don’t have the freedom democracy promised us. It is a shame that in such a vibrant and beautiful country, we are in so many ways caged in. I hope we all rise to the occasion and live up to our own responsibility when it comes to freedom - especially the government!

Friday, 13 June 2008

It's the kids who suffer most

Rifle Range Refugee Camp on the Southwestern outskirts of Johannesburg.

2300 immigrants from 14 African nations have been relocated here ten days ago, after spending excruciating days fearing for the lives at various police stations throughout the city.

They've lost everything: their homes, their jobs, all their belongings. Many just have what they wore when they fled the xenophobic violence.

A group of Congolese young men is showing us around the camp. Neat rows of white plastic tents, all numbered and sorted by nationalities.

Here are the Ethiopians, down there - towards the end - the Zimbabweans, Malawians and Somalis. And here the Congolese, one of the camp's biggest communities. Every community has so-called Peace Marshalls and community leaders.

But the seemingly organised structure doesn't gloss over the chaos and the desperation.

It's the kids who suffer most here at the Rifle Range Refugee Camp.

Families with up to eight kids live in crammed tents. There are no mattresses and not enough blankets. The refugees are using cardboard boxes to try and isolate the winter cold, but it doesn't work. There's no hot water and the sanitation is rudimentary, to put it mildly.

Food is distributed twice a day, but a few slices of bread are simply not enough. Many suffer from diarrhoea and some refugees told us that much of the food they've receive is way past the date and actually rotten.

The atmosphere in the camp is tense - and the anger palpable. And who can blame them?

Xenophobia is part of everyday life for the refugees here in South Africa.

Susanne, a 43-year old Congolese tells me she was harassed on the bus yesterday as she was on her way to extend her papers. They called her "Kwere Kwere" - which means "foreigner" in Zulu. They said she should leave the country, because foreigners are neither needed nor wanted.

Susanne is sad - and very upset. Like most of the foreigners here at the Rifle Range Refugee Camp, she fled her country because she was persecuted. Going home is not an option. But staying here neither.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Have the abused become the abusers?

Over the past few weeks South Africa has witnessed some of the worst incidents of xenophobic violence ever experienced.

62 foreigners from neighbouring countries have been killed, 670 have been injured and tens of thousands of people have either been displaced or forcibly ejected from their homes.

In this week's BBC African Perspective, Carolyn Dempsters asks why there is such hatred for foreigners in the so-called 'rainbow nation' -- and what can be done about it?

Saturday, 7 June 2008

South Africa - First Impressions

It's my first visit to South Africa. I've heard and read a lot about this country, sadly also a lot of negative press lately, as anti-immigrant violence has sullied the rainbow nation's reputation for tolerance.

I'm in Johannesburg for ten days working with South African Journalists on election issues. And we kicked off our seminar at Constitutional Hill, an impressive and inspiring landmark that bridges the country's past and present.

On the one hand there's the old fort, a notorious prison dating back to 1892 with its various sections: the Awaiting Trial Block, which held the 156 treason trialists of 1956 - led by Nelson Mandela; the gruesome Number Four section, which held black prisoners...

...and the Women's Goal, where female offenders - both black and white - were separately incarcerated like animals.

On the other hand, or I should say in the midst of this, there's South Africa's new Constitutional Court literally rising from the ashes of one of the city's most poignant apartheid-system monuments.

The architecture is impressive and full of symbols. The modern structure incorporates the prison walls. The new court's plenary was built with the old red bricks and large windows allow the people inside to see the former watch towers, and the people outside to watch the proceedings.

The ethnic and linguistic diversity is omnipresent. The court's facade is covered with the words "Constitutional Court" in the eleven official languages of South Africa. There're eleven judges hearing cases in eleven languages.

I think I've never seen a landmark concentrating past, present and future in such an overwhelming density. It's all here in one spot. South Africa's cruel and tragic history, making me ashamed of being white. South Africa's hope and dreams of a better future. It really evokes strong emotions.

How did these people survive? Where did they take their strength from? Is it possible to forgive and build a future together? The tour through the prison - especially through the Number Four Section - is deeply upsetting. I'm thinking, how much worse must it be for my South African colleagues?

Some said it provokes hatred, other said patriotism and pride to see what their country has achieved after so many years of oppression and terror.

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