No plan in place

2008-06-04 00:00

Compared with major cities, Pietermaritzburg hasn’t a serious xenophobia and/or refugee problem. Even so, municipal authorities, together with the city’s anti-xenophobic coalition, are preparing to help foreign nationals in a shelter set up in the CBD. Various NGOs are poised to help provide safe housing, food and other supplies, as well as counselling to those in need. The organisations concerned are known to be efficient, and it looks as if good co-ordination will make the programme run smoothly.

Bigger conurbations with much bigger immigrant populations, such as Johannesburg and Cape Town, must surely have mounted similar programmes on a larger scale, in accordance, perhaps, with a master plan laid down by the government?

Well, no. For a start, there isn’t a master plan, as was proved again this week. Without due consideration, it was decided in Johannesburg to set up a refugee shelter at Vickers Road, City Deep, a locality extremely unsafe for displaced foreigners. Lawyers for Human Rights, the Central Methodist Church and Médecins Sans Frontières were forced to waste time and energy seeking an interdict against the relocation to the shelter of foreigners being accommodated at police stations, granted by the Johannesburg High Court this week. Similar lack of foresight — and no consultation at all — led to the placement of a camp in a park in the upper-middle-class Corlett Drive area, where residents are alarmed. And almost every radio station — and even some television news stations — feature reports of further gross ineptitude on the part of the authorities: besides refugee camps in unsuitable locations, many lack a central office or command post, as well as basic amenities such as food, water and sanitation, while no thought has been given to the wellbeing and schooling of immigrant children. The list of unforgivable inadequacies, the examples of lack of system, management and method, of bad or non-existent planning, of non-commun- ication, of poor policing and crowd control, of disregard for the needs of those who have lost so much, could go on and on.

Clearly, the government has failed to grapple with the problem. It tries to cover its shortcomings by mumbling over the supposed causes of the xenophobic violence (the legacy of apartheid, poverty and culture, etc.). Nothing’s working — not the camps and shelters, not attempts at repatriation and not attempts at re-integration. And as the whole thing becomes more and more unravelled, and the authorities continue to throw up their hands, one crisis will lead to another and another, and the end result will be anarchy.

Yet, as Pietermaritzburg’s simple but effective strategy makes clear, good organisation and a humane, commonsensical approach produce results. Since government won’t or can’t lead, we must press on regardless and rise to the occasion, contributing everything we can intellectually, financially and in kind, to bring an end to what is endangering the fabric of South African society.

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