Business Day, 31 May 2008

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In Cape Town, the picture of the official response to horrific, undiscriminating ethnic cleansing is, so far, of political infighting and divisive point scoring. The city’s Democratic Alliance coalition appears to be at loggerheads with the African National Congress provincial authorities. Meanwhile volunteers shoulder most of the burden. “Our politicians are squabbling,” sighed one harried human rights lawyer whose nongovernmental organisation (NGO) office was packed this week with despairing refugees. “It’s all about big egos.” I was there with a shell-shocked refugee couple, seeking information and advice. The lesson, repeated bitterly by most refugees, is: don’t look to the government for help. There were perhaps 30 refugees scrunched into this office, all fearful and angry. They represented a wide spectrum of Africa. Yet the scene in that overcrowded room reminded me of being in exactly similar volunteer agencies many years ago — but back then listening to pitiful stories from black South Africans persecuted and dehumanised by the dompas and apartheid policemen. The politics of Cape Town have been convulsed in recent months by various spy scandals, with allegations and counter allegations flying between the competing parties. All too clearly they’ve been too busy snooping on each other to notice anything else. In Hout Bay, where I live, nearly all foreigners fled Imizamo Yethu township last weekend. Only the Namibians remained. “We attacked them a couple of years ago,” a Xhosa speaker told me. “But they had catapults and sent our guys running.” Now a local police report says their biggest concern is that “the Ovambos refused to leave. They armed themselves with pangas, bows and arrows, assegais and other homemade weapons. They are waiting to be confronted and will defend themselves with their lives.” But it’s apparent that, as in the rest of the country, there is a drastic vacuum of leadership. “It seems that the biggest problem is denial,” states this Hout Bay police report. “No leader accepts the fact that xenophobia exists within Imizamo Yethu. They blame it on normal criminal behaviour. They also blame employers of the foreigners for safeguarding them and that it’s the foreigners’ fault that they left Imizamo Yethu and that their shops were targeted.” In other words, exactly as under apartheid, it’s that old alibi: blaming the victim. Indeed, according to the police report, “it is very clear that some community leaders are blaming everyone except themselves”. At one scheduled meeting, to discuss a possible return of victims to their homes, “only the South African National Civic Organisation chair attended”. Behind the jostling refugees in the NGO office I spotted a glossy home affairs poster with the title: “Who is a refugee?” The poster doesn’t mince words: “A threat to life or freedom is persecution. It is a systematic violation of human rights.” There are six grounds for considering someone to be persecuted, explains the poster, including, “Race or ethnic origins: the applicant has experienced differential treatment based on colour, descent, national or ethnic origin.” Today, however, the stark question is: who can these terrified people possibly appeal to now about such systematic persecution here in SA? The poster boasts, “Home Affairs: Caring, Compassionate and Responsive.” Tragically, judged by their own score sheet, so far it’s Persecution 3, Home Affairs, 0.