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Map of Bath by Speed, 1676, ref: 0596

Xenophobia in Cape Town

Written in 2019 by a member of a creative writing class, through a collaboration between Bath Record Office and the St. John’s Foundation.

It was eight pm the shopping mall was still heaving as I surveyed bright, colourfully dressed people dashing about with large bags on sloping shoulders, laughter & exhaustion vying with each other on their faces. As I reached the top of the escalator my new work colleagues greeted me, steering me towards the escalator down, light dawned as they read out the text from a mobile phone. ‘Come to Warehouse immediately, xenophobia broken out in Khayalitsha.’ We were back on the Wetton road arriving at The Warehouse a very long twenty minutes later.

Emergency plans had slipped it seemed, effortlessly into place. The Warehouse, an outreach centre with offices for eight projects from orphans of AIDS to the unemployed, in an hour became a centre for refugees. South Africans in the township had turned on their Zimbabwean neighbours with such ferocity they had fled with their families. Some never made it they were stopped by machetes.

Vacuum cleaners were the first into action, cleaning the floors of the cement dust which constantly accumulated. Next came blankets, shaken rigorously outside until free of cement dust. Water urns switched on, cups and glasses lined up; stacking chairs unstacked, tables wiped. I was given a roll of sticky labels & a pen. As each family came in I had to write their names on a label & put it on their clothes. Then pass them over to Elizabeth who settled them with blankets on a floor space. Craig brought them drinks while those needing medical attention were taken to a specially screened off area where doctors & nurses were arriving to attend the injured.

There was an extraordinary quiet over all this activity, people spoke softly, respectfully, kindly. The sense of calm seemed to penetrate the refugees as they entered almost like entering a holy space. The children’s tears soon ceased as they huddled in family groups, with soft toys and pillows comforting them.

So the night passed and with morning came deliveries of food & drink and the next stage moved into action. People began to arrive willing to take, twos, threes, fours, fives and so on into their homes. The Warehouse gradually went from over 100 to twenty or so. Here the police moved to transport the remaining few to a local school which could provide more than just floor space.

At 11am that morning Elizabeth & I went to a community centre called Chrysalis where an appeal for clothes had gone out. As we drove up we were in competition with baboons which were attracted by the activity and rightly guessed there would be food around. The refugees milling around didn’t seem bothered by them, the least of their problems seems an understatement. There were van loads of clothes coming in with too few volunteers to sort them. Elizabeth & I stayed for a few hours sorting the garments which  were first checked over, then the sizes sorted, then the colours, finishing in small bundles of two jumpers, two t shirts, two skirts, two trousers, underwear all same size & colour co-ordinated finally  tied with ribbon & set aside to be given out to each individual. The care and respectfulness of this made me cry, as did vacuuming the floors at The Warehouse before the refugees arrived.

From Chrysalis we went to Soet Strand (Sweet Beach) where two thousand refugees had been pushed out of several different townships. There were marquees set up accommodating the various needs. I remember the baby’s marquee with a mountain of disposable nappies and highly vocal babies with flaying limbs fighting every effort of restraint on changing mats.

These refugees had been marooned on the beach with nothing but the sea behind them, they could run no further, they had nothing. I think of some religious practises where the ‘believers’ are asked ‘to empty themselves’ What does this really mean? Is this where the refugees found themselves, emptied?

Brenda Carter, 2019