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 Friday 30 May 2008
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SOUTH AFRICA: A day in the life of a community's response

Photo: Laura Lopez Gonzalez/IRIN
The kindness of strangers
JOHANNESBURG, 29 May 2008 (PlusNews) - It is 5 a.m., but the winter night sky is yet to lighten over Johannesburg, South Africa; Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the international medical and humanitarian aid organisation, says the persistent drizzle and near freezing temperatures are contributing to respiratory infections and diarrhoea among the thousands displaced by xenophobic violence.

Samuel Zona, a Zimbabwean national, and the other staff of the Village Safe Haven, a group foster home and feeding scheme that sprawls across several hectares of land on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, are just waking.

An hour later, among the bags of maizemeal and fresh vegetables, Susan Harris, who runs the charity with her husband, Michael, plans the day's menu with Zona under the makeshift tent erected over an outdoor kitchen. They check the expiry dates of donated food, which ultimately decides the menu.

MSF is providing medical care to thousands of people seeking refuge from the xenophobic violence that began more than two weeks ago and claimed at least 56 lives. MSF spokesperson Sune Kitshoff told IRIN/PlusNews that basic needs like food, shelter and security dominated the needs agenda, and the effect of displacement on those living with HIV and receiving antiretroviral treatment had not yet been assessed.

South Africa has the world highest number of HIV infections, but the rate of infection among foreign nationals is difficult to assess, as many are in the country illegally. Village Safe Haven's Harris said she and her team ensured that the meals they provided could support those living with HIV and on treatment.

From about 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Zona mans two pots - almost 200 litres – of nutritious vegetable soup, while Harris is on the phone, coordinating the donations that have been streaming in from the public as well as organisations like MSF.

MSF's Kitshoff said they had received a landslide of unsolicited donations after the attacks began and have started to pass on some of the blankets and foodstuffs to organisations better equipped to distribute them. 

''Safety and security, we do that - but we've never run a refugee camp before''
At about 10.30 a.m. a volunteered pick-up truck full of policemen pulls into the Village Safe Haven driveway and blankets, toothbrushes and any other donations ready to go are loaded into it for the foreign nationals sheltering at the Alexandra police station, the epicentre of the xenophobic attacks that have swept the country.

As the truck disappears from sight, Zona and Harris wash the pots and start preparing the evening meal. By 1 p.m. Zona's soup is being eaten by Solomon Monyama, a fellow Zimbabwean national.

The violence has subsided in Alexandra and many of those who sought refuge at the police station have left to search for piecework during the day, but return at night for food and a safe place to sleep in the three large plastic tents erected in the parking lot of the police station.

Monyama and the other men mill around a lone Home Affairs official who has arrived to sort out lost documentation. A salvaged television set is half-hidden among Chinese-made plaid plastic bags containing a few hurriedly packed belongings.

The police station has also been receiving donations. A hall in the building, housing women and children, looks more like a playroom during the day. Along one wall, cereals, biscuits (cookies), tea, coffee and oatmeal are stacked for distribution during the day.

Learning to run refugee camps

Constable Neria Malefetse, who said the police have been on a steep learning curve in trying to feed and house the roughly 1,000 people at the station, told IRIN/PlusNews the donations and volunteer help from those in Alexandra and the surrounding areas have been of great assistance. "Safety and security, we do that - but we've never run a refugee camp before." 

In downtown Johannesburg, the Central Methodist Church has had to learn how to do safety and security. According to Bishop Paul Verryn, the church is housing 1,500 to 2,000 foreign nationals and has come under attack at least twice in the past week, but the police and public have been committed to providing for those in his care.

"I've never seen anything like this in South Africa, especially considering it's a tricky issue - not everyone thinks xenophobia is a bad thing. In actual fact, it's quite difficult to cope with the number of gifts we have received," said Verryn. 

As night falls in Alexandra, the number of people at the police station swells; by 7 p.m. people have eaten the last of Zona's meals and by about 9 p.m. most have fallen asleep, except for Solomon Monyama.

He stays awake after hearing rumours that a bus is on its way to take those wanting to return home back to Zimbabwe. "We were afraid in Zimbabwe and came here looking for survival. We did not expect this."


Theme(s): (IRIN) Care/Treatment - PlusNews, (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews)


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.