Inside the Fence: Youngsfield Refugee Camp, Cape Town

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.

Ifrah then baths her baby brothers, who range from two years old to six, using the porta-loo wash rooms. Water gushes from the floor onto the piles of sludge-like rubbish outside.
Then I go and play” she smiles.
‘When?’ I wonder, because at 1pm the Red Cross appears with a limited quantity of rice for lunch. Many of the pregnant women smell the food and can’t eat.
With no school organized yet and the threat of xenophobic violence outside the fences of the military base, Ifrah has nothing to do for the rest of the day but daily chores and thinking of her home and ambiguous future.
Walking through the refugee camp men, women and children tell you they want to go home. But they know this will probably never happen, so they want to work, to buy a house and re-build their life.
Of course the sick, elderly or pregnant complain about the conditions, but the able make do. There is something far more important than sharing ten porta-loos and four taps with 1300 people on a muddy field in the wind and rain of South African winter: dignity.
“We want to work” is the refrain heard too often from people who once lived ordinary lives until violence and corruption forced them to leave their homes, businesses and families. When you can’t go home, where you live ceases to be as important as the fact that you do indeed, live.

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.

But South Africa is a country still reeling from another country’s occupation in their land, and of their people. Democracy brought change and development but it also brought corruption. The raw feelings that existed during apartheid have gone underground, beneath the majority who strive for equality, but they still exist, and everywhere the words ‘dangerous’ and ‘be careful’ hang on the air like an accepted and almost unnoticed fact of nature.
Yet the community leaders in Youngsfield camp are hopeful. They want to reclaim their dignity by helping their own people.
Abdul Gauri excitedly waves the keys for an office in his hands. The figures for NGO’s donations and what the refugees have received don’t add up. But more importantly, the camp is due to close in just over a month and there is an urgent need for repatriation and rehabilitation.
But the lease runs out in a month and there’s no money.
At 5pm the Red Cross is back. The healthy, sick, elderly, pregnant and young alike form a long line to receive two slices of dry bread and a cup of tea.
Ifrah lines up with the rest then goes to play with the other children.
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