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Migrants face uncertain future

2010-02-01 10:26

Johannesburg - For thousands of Zimbabweans who flee their troubled country, the Methodist church in downtown Johannesburg is the only home they know.

After five years with up to 2 000 people a night sleeping on pews, floors and stairwells, the church is now overcrowded, filthy and reeking due to inadequate sanitation - decidedly not the image that SA wants to present during the World Cup.

Claims that children were sexually abused by a teacher and fellow migrants emerged late in 2009, triggering a new drive by authorities to close down the church - though no one has put forward any alternatives for the homeless foreigners.

"It is not my fault that I'm here," said Nokuthula Ndlovu, a 29-year-old Zimbabwean mother.

"Home is best, I was supposed to be in my country, but because of the difficulties, I can't be. If they send me back to Zimbabwe, I will die," said Ndlovu, who has lived in the church since 2008.

Grim living conditions


Bishop Paul Verryn, who has made a mission of sheltering migrants at the Central Methodist Church, acknowledged the grim living conditions, but said the church had never turned away a homeless person in 20 years.

"We desperately need government support, we are not set up against them," he said. "We are vulnerable. We struggle on a daily basis. We need vigorous co-operation with police as well."

Instead, he said the government has repeatedly sent in police on "military-like" raids styled as anti-crime swoops, which the bishop claimed are really a clean-up campaign to remove homeless from the city centre before the World Cup in June.

About 80% of the migrants sheltering there are Zimbabweans who came to SA in search of jobs, part of an exodus that has seen up to three million Zimbabweans leave their country over the last decade.

But in a country with 25% unemployment, they have not received a warm welcome from locals.

The church has tried to help the migrants find a better life, setting up workshops to teach adults computers and crafts, while 450 children attend school there during the day.

"It is good, but the facilities, it's not good - no desk, no chairs and stuff like that," said Diana, a 13-year-old pupil.

Disaster


Provincial health official Molebatsi Bopape in October tried to close down the church, which she described as a disaster and a health hazard.

"That place is not conducive for people to live there, and it's an open secret that there is abuse of children there," she said.

It's the reports of sexual abuse that have done the most to dim the reputation of the church, which many Zimbabweans see as a beacon of hope in an often hostile land.

Verryn said he had called police several times to investigate the claims, but said police had shown little interest in the church beyond forcing people off the surrounding sidewalks.

"Criminality in this place is the last thing I want. People are far too vulnerable and we want to empower people. We don't want to drive people into reinforcements of their fears," he said.

But the accusations fly both ways: Provincial authorities said Verryn has refused to co-operate with social workers who wanted to move the children from the church to safer shelters.

A court appointed a child rights lawyer to safeguard the children, but that hasn't eased the tensions.

Tension

Methodist authorities have also criticised the bishop, saying the church was never meant as a permanent shelter for so many people.

Tension between Verryn, local government and the church leadership reached the boiling point as he was suspended on Tuesday by Methodist authorities, who have declined to reveal the exact reasons for their action.

He has been charged with "transgressing the laws and discipline of the church", with a disciplinary hearing set for February 1, said church lawyer Bongani Khoza.

People depending on the church for shelter said that despite the controversy, they have nowhere else to turn.

"It's not an ideal situation for people to stay in this place. It is only that there is no other option. There is no other place that they can go and stay," said Evans Tendai Kuntonda, who lives at the church.

"This is the only shelter that has opened doors for them. The government of this country doesn't want to admit that this is a crisis."

Comments
  • Paul Bethke - 2010-02-01 11:24

    QUOTE:- After five years with up to 2 000 people a night sleeping on pews, floors and stairwells, the church is now overcrowded, filthy and reeking due to inadequate sanitation - decidedly not the image that SA wants to present during the World Cup.
    .
    Paul Verryn is a fool the true CHURCH is called to bring people to repentance—the people at the church are illegal immigrants.
    To allow a building to deteriorate to the extent as is –is criminal.
    .
    The CHURCH cannot help people to break the law.
    .
    The Methodist church has always been a meddler 1Peter 4:15

  • Lucia Baepile - 2010-02-01 11:46

    Bishop Paul Verryn was trying to help, but unfortunately that did not work. It is better if those people go back to their country. We understand the situation in Zimbabwe but the government cannot be able to help this people, as there are so many South Africans who also need help from the government. There is no way our government will help Southern African citizens as well as the Zimbabweans, this is too much.

  • Gary - 2010-02-01 13:05

    Quote "Paul Verryn is a fool the true CHURCH is called to bring people to repentance—the people at the church are illegal immigrants.
    To allow a building to deteriorate to the extent as is –is criminal.
    .
    The CHURCH cannot help people to break the law.
    .
    "The Methodist church has always been a meddler"

    Paul Bethke, where is your christian love. These are people who have nothing! Our government has done nothing except persecute them. At least Verryn is doing what little he can. Shame on us who do nothing!

  • EH - 2010-02-01 13:22

    A sad indictment on the South African government. It remains silent on the atrocities and silently supports the despot across the border and when its citizens flee to South Afric, the best it can do is critise and harass the only organisation that display Christian principles and the Ubuntu that Africa is supposedly known for. It may be unhygenic and crowded, but that it better than nothing. Isnt it time the government stepped up to the plate, both in housing these refugees and in pressurising the Zim government to stop its human rights abuses.

  • Paul Bethke - 2010-02-01 13:40

    @Gary
    Perhaps Gary you should learn what loves means.
    .
    For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and KEEP MY COMMANDMENTS.
    .

    None of these people love God if they did they would not be there!!!
    .
    Does love as you see it mean that we must tolerate lawlessness?

  • Johnson - 2010-02-01 13:54

    I know we all feel betrayed but for heaven`s sake please do not insult the Bishop.He is just doing what any normal human being would do to help destitute beings as well.

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