The two Congolese men that arrive on the church’s doorstep look shaken and defeated. They explain that their house in Samora Machel has been ransacked and burnt down; there is nowhere for them to go. Could they spend the night here, at the Claremont Methodist church?
Unfortunately the church is full so, after a hot meal has been provided, we give them a lift to Lotus River Methodist, which still has space. In the car they tell us their story. They’ve been in Cape Town for about five years. The previous Thursday they were on their way from their car-washing job to the Claremont station when a few black police officers spotted them. They searched them up against a wall before tearing up their immigration papers, arresting them and throwing them into a police van.
They spent the weekend incarcerated; then on Monday, at the Department of Home Affairs, a kindly woman recognised them, provided them with new papers and ensured they were released.
On Tuesday their house was attacked. They say that in Samora looters went from house to house, asking the nationality of the residents inside. If you’re an immigrant they entered and ransacked the place, taking everything of value. Then they called the mobs to come and burn the place down.
They went to the police station and reported what had happened. The police officers on duty were drunk and just laughed at them. Wednesday night was spent in the rain at the car park where they wash cars.
On Thursday night, they come to the church. The two men are stunned, shell-shocked by what’s happening to them. They can’t understand the madness. Among the mob that burnt their house down were local people they knew.
They tell us about their friend, also from the DRC, who was travelling by train last Monday morning from Cape Town station. Stuck in an overcrowded third-class carriage, the mob inside started asking him the meaning for isiXhosa words (doubtlessly they didn’t ask for the definition of “ubuntu”). When he couldn’t answer, they began beating him. As the train was approaching a bridge near Mowbray, the passengers tried to open the door of the carriage to throw him out. Fortunately the double doors refused to budge.
Badly beaten, the friend got out at Mowbray station. When he explained what had just had happened to the Xhosa security guards, they laughed at him. He went then went to the police where his story also elicited much mirth. “You’re a man — you should be able to defend yourself,” they said between bouts of laughter.
Immigrants are being subjected to senseless, brutal discrimination — apartheid by any other name. Immigrants in the eyes of certain South Africans are sub-humans: fair game for vilification, abuse and persecution. The chaos of the past few weeks may have quietened down but, tragically, the stigma of mkwere mkwere lingers, perpetuated by those who should know better.