‘We are prepared to die in SA, rather than die at home’

2015-04-16 10:10

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Men, women, children and babies moved into tents in areas of Durban this week as violence against foreigners continued across the city.

People from as far as Congo and Burundi, who had been in the country for years, said they did not understand why locals were baying for their blood.

City Press visited two of the refugee camps, in Isipingo and Chatsworth, to speak to displaced and injured foreigners as the grey clouds of cold gathered over the port city.

Domingo Felekeni from the Democratic Republic of Congo said that leaving South Africa or reintegration wasn’t as easy as people made it out to be.

“I have a wife, a life, children and family here. I won’t just leave it behind,” he said.

He owned a barber shop and a car dealer and had a handful of employees.

“I have worked for everything. I have never begged from anyone. I don’t understand what the locals want from us because my businesses are successful because they use my services. You won’t find a foreigner walking into my barber shop; instead it’s South Africans. The same people who want us gone are those who have received hand-outs all their lives like free houses, electricity, grants and then they complain that I’m doing something for myself,” he added.

The 31-year-old father of two sleeps in Isipingo refugee camp with about 400 others, and wakes up at 5am every morning to take his children to school.

From the same camp, Alex Msambiya – who arrived in the country at the age of 18 after running away from a war-torn DRC – said this was not his first taste of angry, violent locals perpetuating hate crimes.

At the height of the worst attacks in the country in 2008, he was living in Joburg. He was beaten and he lost his job. He moved to KwaZulu-Natal a few months later to start again. He had two salons where he employed seven locals.

“Their own people are now out of employment and there are women who have children who will have nothing to eat any more,” he said.

The 28-year-old said he would gladly go back home but he couldn’t.

“I can’t go back home; they will kill me. I can’t go back to Isipingo, they will kill me there,” he said.

But H. Muhamedi Ishmailly, who left his country 11 years ago when most of his family was wiped out in a village shooting, says only God knows what will happen to him.

“I left my country because there was no end to the war. I’m here now and there’s no end to this. But I cannot go back home. If it is my time to die here, I will die by their hands. Only God knows,” he said.

When he arrived in the country all he had were his papers “and I was told to go to the streets and figure it out on my own”.

He became a panel beater and mechanic at a small shop owned by an Indian.

But others in the camps said the difficulties back home were better than the hell they had to deal with in South Africa and they were just waiting for buses to arrive so they could leave.

Maria Luciana, who is from Mozambique, shyly said she had called her mother in Maputo and even she urged her to pack the little she had left and go back home.

She had to think of the safety of her children. The 21-year-old, whose husband Louise Domingo sells shoes and handbags in Isipingo, said she arrived in the country in 2009.

“He has never taken anyone’s job. He sells shoes and handbags on the street. Whose job is that?” she said, almost in a whisper.

The cold wind makes her adjust the blanket holding her one-year-old on her back.

“It has been really painful because life for us as we know it just changed in one week,” she said.

Another woman, who only wanted to be known as Phumzile, said she had two children with a Mozambican who now also wants to go home, yet she – a South African – does not want to move to his home country.

“I have never spent a day without my children and now he wants to leave with them and start a new life there. I don’t know what to do,” she said, holding her five-year-old close to her.

Phumzile says she could leave the camp anytime she wanted to but she didn’t want to deny her children their father, nor did she want to move to Mozambique.

“I’m going to wait until he comes back and we need to sort this out with the people from home affairs. He can’t leave with my children but he is scared to stay in this country. I don’t know what to do,” she said.

Another Mozambican, Ricardo Maunze, said he should be a citizen of the country by now because he had been using a work permit for nearly 20 years.

“I arrived in 1998 without any skills and I went out there to learn. I learnt how to be a mechanic and that is how I have made a living for myself. How can people say I stole their jobs?” said the 34-year-old.

He was first warned by his daughter that foreigners were being beaten in Isipingo. He didn’t believe it until a group of men kicked down his door and raided his home as he fled into the night with his daughter.

His neighbours hid him for a couple of days until the refugee camp was erected.

Kanakimana Amadi came to the country from Burundi in 2008 and employed two South Africans in his shop.

“I have never taken anyone’s job, instead I created employment for others who did not have work,” he said angrily.

He said he paid his workers R650 a week. Both were not at the shop the day the mob came into his shop screaming “kwerekwere”. He ran to save his life and now he has nothing left – but for him that isn’t the worst part.

“Who wants to be hounded and killed in another country when you have your own? If there wasn’t the constant war at home I would gladly go back tomorrow,” said the 29-year-old.

Victoria Ngwane, who is from Mozambique, said she was fortunate that she was not at home when her neighbourhood in Chatsworth was raided.

She had taken her child to the hospital in Empangeni where some of her family lived. But on her way back to Durban her sister told her it wasn’t safe and everyone else was at the refugee camp.

The 36-year-old said she arrived in South Africa and immediately went looking for work. She was willing to take on any menial work.

“I don’t understand how people can say we are stealing their jobs because we all have hands to do domestic work. I have nowhere to go now because one of my children is still in school and I can’t just take them out,” she said.

Alex Johnson, who is from Zimbabwe, has been in the country since he was 15, but now that his life has “finally come together” he is being thrown out.

“This isn’t the first time this has happened. Remember in 2008 this flared up and at that time we were housed in town. Now we are in tents and you can see this is not an ideal situation especially for little children who are getting the flu,” he said.

The 24-year-old said his biggest problem, even if he wanted to go back to work, was that he worked with some of the people perpetuating the violence against foreigners.

As the mayhem in Durban came to a lull and the attacks spread to other parts of the country, there was little hope from the camps that they would return to their communities.

Many of the refugees said they would rather go to another country than return to their war-torn countries of birth, while others like Ishmailly said they would rather die in South Africa.

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