Former Wits Vuvuzela journalist, Shandukani Mulaudzi, reflects on her visit to a transit refugee camp in Chatsworth, Durban.
After spending a week in Kwazulu-Natal on holiday, I knew I could not leave the province without going to one of the camps set up in aid of foreign nationals who were escaping xenophobic violence in South Africa.
I had no idea what to expect, but after hearing news reports most camps were near empty, I thought there would be very few people there by the time of my visit at the end of April.
I was shocked by the number of people who remained displaced after the spate of attacks earlier in the month. Almost 1 700 people were now living at the camp in Chatsworth, according to Max Henderson, one of the volunteers I spoke with.
Henderson told us that most of the people in the Chatsworth Camp were from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. More recently some people from Somalia had joined the camp from another Isipingo. Henderson said another 200 DRC nationals were expected to arrive in Chatsworth due to the imminent closure of the Isipingo camp. He also told us that 40 buses would be coming from Malawi to fetch their citizens.
Under a tree, volunteers were calling out people’s names and giving them the papers they needed to go back to their home countries. While some of the citizens of Malawi were happy to go back because they feared for their lives in South Africa, many were sad to be returning as they needed to work in South Africa, according to one of the volunteers.
On the other side of the field, police vans were being offloaded with boxes full of peanut butter sandwiches and small sachets of drinking water.
Grown men started running across to the vans only to sit down and wait to be called up to receive one sandwich and two packets of water each.
Some tried to push in but were called back by volunteers as an act of fairness towards those who arrived first.
While watching the people in line for food, I noticed a couple come to the front of the line because they had a child with them.
Seeing this couple made me realise how few women and children are at the camp, my only assumption is that they were first priority when people were repatriated.
“Overwhelmed by the living conditions”
I was at the camp for about 20 minutes but in that short space of time I was overwhelmed by the living conditions. The tents could not have comfortably housed the more than 2 500 people who were at the camp initially. The spaces must have been very cramped for all who were forced into them.
There were mobile toilets in place, but the only way the residents could bath was with buckets using cold tap water.
The over-flowing rubbish bins were placed far too closely near the tents that people slept in.
I have no doubt in my mind that all the volunteers and police tried their best to make sure people were as comfortable as possible, but the lack of dignity and freedom of living on an open field far away from the places people called home, cannot be ignored.
What I have struggled with the most is that the people who inflicted this violence on our foreign nationals also live in less than desirable conditions. Getting mad at the foreign nationals for the socio-economic problems that have led to their frustration is something I cannot simply do. But after seeing what I saw I want to find someone to blame.
We could have dialogues about the causes of xenophobic violence but the truth is our privilege as people who do not live in poverty keeps us disjointed from the communities we so desperately seek to serve.
My middle class privilege allowed me to walk into the camp, give some food, be sad, then walk out again and whenever I choose to, I can forget.
My twenty minute heartbreak however, is someone else’s daily experience – it’s their reality.