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A letter from Doug Tilton in South Africa

November 14, 2008

Dear Friends,

Photograph of five adults gathered in a group to have their photograph taken. One of the women holds a baby swaddled in blankets in her arms.

Mr. and Mrs. Mitabele with Esther; Back: Mr. Sango Abele, the Rev. Gift Moerane and Ms. Sannah Yika (SACC Gauteng). Photo by Julia Steffan.

Baby Esther Mitabele was lucky. In recent months, the Gauteng provincial office of the South African Council of Churches (SACC Gauteng) has had to organize funerals for several foreign nationals who have died in South Africa. The tragic reckoning includes a 1-month-old Congolese girl who, like Esther, was born in one of the scores of government shelters set up to house people displaced by the mob violence that ravaged several of South Africa’s largest cities in May. Those rampages left 56 people dead, hundreds of homes and businesses looted and burned and an estimated 20,000 people homeless — just as winter set in. While as many as a quarter of the dead were South Africans, the majority of those affected were foreign nationals: recent refugees and asylum seekers as well as some immigrants who had lived in South Africa for years.

Showing hospitality to strangers is a central expectation of most African cultures. Yet foreigners in South Africa (and in the United States) often become easy scapegoats for popular frustration. Those who manage, through hard work, to achieve modest success are sometimes regarded with jealousy by less affluent neighbours. They may be accused of taking scarce jobs or housing — or even wives. Since 1994, the Southern African Migration Project has recorded alarmingly regular attacks on foreigners — particularly other Africans — living in South Africa.

May’s events were especially shocking, however, because of the intensity of the violence and the way it spread from community to community in a manner that suggested it was orchestrated. While the media tended to portray the attacks as the product of blind, “xenophobic” frenzy, government officials blamed criminal opportunism. In fact, the pogroms seem to have been motivated by a complex matrix of forces. Xenophobia and criminality were undoubtedly part of the mix, but so were a profound and widespread frustration with the persistent levels of poverty and inequality in South Africa and a sudden, sharp increase in prices. Limited economic opportunities in rural South Africa and neighboring states have prompted millions of people to flock to South Africa’s cities, straining the capacity of local infrastructure and services, intensifying competition for resources and fostering resentment of newcomers. The economic meltdown and related political and humanitarian disaster in Zimbabwe have displaced millions more.

Photo of a man wearing a suit and tie standing in a hospital room next to a bunk bed. The mattresses of the bed are covered in clear plastic.

The Rev. Moerane checks progress on the accommodation block at the proposed refugee training centre in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.

The violence was also a challenge to South Africa’s churches. Many congregations helped to provide food, soap, blankets and other basic supplies to the families who sought shelter in the tent cities erected by the government. In Johannesburg and Pretoria, the SACC Gauteng organised local clergy to make pastoral visits to the shelters. It was during a visit to the Glenanda camp in southern Johannesburg that the Reverend Gift Moerane, head of the SACC Gauteng, met Esther’s father, Vasco Mitabele.

By August, the government was trying to close the increasingly unhygienic shelters and to integrate displaced people into communities. Churches worked with varying degrees of success to facilitate reconciliation and the return of looted property, but they also warned against compelling people to return prematurely to areas where xenophobia remained unchecked. Mr. Mitabele was one of a number of Glenanda residents who successfully petitioned the courts to prevent the government from evicting people from the remaining shelters until October at the earliest.

While the SACC Gauteng supported the displaced families’ efforts to protect the limited security they had in the shelters, they didn’t see legal action as a long-term remedy. “We tried to encourage people to think practically about how they could rebuild their lives,” the Rev. Moerane recalls. “We counselled people to take the limited resources on offer — access to state-provided primary education and health care, a small resettlement grant from the United Nations — and to build on these.”

Although the Council had generally played an advisory and co-ordinating role throughout the crisis — “We were afraid that we could not handle the flood of people if we started providing aid directly,” the Rev. Moerane explained — they were able to provide some assistance to the Mitabeles and several other households during the latter stages of the crisis. “These were people with refugee status who were eager to get on with their lives and did not want to depend on government relief,” commented the Rev. Moerane.

In the weeks that followed, Mr. Mitabele managed to establish a small business in another part of Johannesburg where he now does hair styling and sells snacks. “He has called to thank the Council and to say that his wife and baby Esther are doing well,” Rev. Moerane reports.

During October, the government closed most of the remaining shelters. The SACC is now working with the city of Johannesburg to establish a center that can offer temporary housing, skills development and entrepreneurial training to roughly 400 displaced people (both South African and foreign nationals), equipping them to pursue sustainable livelihoods.

As we enter the season of Advent, we remember another family of limited means that was forced to flee into exile with a newborn child. Please uphold in prayer Esther, the Mitabele family and all those who are compelled to leave their homes due to aggression, disaster or economic circumstance — in Southern Africa, the Middle East and around the world. Remember, too, the South African Council of Churches and all who work to empower the displaced and vulnerable so that all may enjoy life in fullness.

Wishing you peace and joy at Christmastide and throughout the year,

Doug Tilton

The 2008 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 28

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