WHEN xenophobic violence erupted in Cape Town in June 2008, 21 000 people were displaced into refugee camps all over the Western Cape Province.
Our director, Theo tells of his experiences as a Congolese father in the kaap at the time.
“I had to leave work and take my wife and children home. My kids didn’t go to school for three weeks for their own safety”.
Racism is almost a part of life in Cape Town. Three weeks into my stay in the city, I worked with a senior photographer named Jack. Without having ever been to Britain, he angrily told me that British people were racist and prejudiced, operating a class system that oppressed the poor and lower castes.
More worrying than his misconceptions was the passion with which he told me that he would not hesitate to kill a Brit. But somehow – perhaps because I was working for a coloured newspaper – I was removed from these sentiments; I was to blame for my ancestors’ actions in South Africa, but I was physically safe from his roth.
Three months on from the xenophobic outburst, 6000 refugees shelter in churches, schools and military bases in the Western Cape.
663 of these refugees squat at the Western Cape’s only military base camp: Youngsfield. The base provides protection for its inhabitants, but what keeps people out, can also keep in.
“We’re citizens, yet we’re like prisoners here. Visitors cannot come in – it’s like a jail,” says one asylum seeker.
Ifrah is a young girl who likes to play outside with her friends and draw pictures. But her life took a very different turn when her family had to leave her home. She was born in Tanzania, yet displacement has given her a strong sense of belonging to the land of her parents and ancestors: Somalia.
At just thirteen, she has traveled extensively in Africa and South Africa, “People call me the traveler,” she smiles. But her smile comes from identifying with the new community she quotes, rather than the words’ implication on her life. When you’re constantly moved on, calling somewhere home is the most exciting adventure imaginable.
“I was at Durban, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth…I liked Durban. I just liked it, I don’t know why,” she says after bounding out of her tent with a big smile and very good English.
At 8am, Ifrah wakes up. She walks around the camp and fetches water before making porridge on a makeshift stove for her four brothers and sisters, as well as the other children in her tent, because her mother and aunties are pregnant and sick.
“Once breakfast is rationed out, I tidy the house.”
‘The house’ is a gazebo-type tent you or I would have a garden party in. When the camp first opened three months ago, over 400 people shared a tent like this. Now the camp is approaching closure, so half of the 1300 people have already been moved on.
“Then I go and play” she smiles.
But is sitting in a muddy tent waiting for hand outs living?
“We want to get a job, buy a house and rebuild our lives – somewhere,” they say.
These are not lazy people who land on South African turf and expect a meal deal with accommodation. They seek refuge.