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Turning away from Violence in South Africa


Young South African volunteers take a stand against violence towards foreign workers in the ‘rainbow nation’.


Tsotang Sethabela remembers the first day of violence in Thokoza township in May. “I was at home when I heard that a group of foreigners, including some South Africans, were being beaten up, robbed and evicted from their houses. Some of the houses were set alight,” says the Red Cross volunteer, who was asked to report to the Red Cross office in Germiston, a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city.

The situation was grave. In Gauteng Province, more than 60 people were killed and scores injured. More than 35,000 people were left homeless after mobs burnt and looted homes belonging to foreigners, many of them migrants from countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia and Zimbabwe. In KwaZulu Natal Province, more than 1,800 homeless people were accommodated at ten police stations and in community halls belonging to 19 local faith-based organizations. In the Western Cape Province, about 13,000 people were displaced when the violence hit Cape Town.

Fear and trauma

In all three provinces, the South African Red Cross Society was part of the joint operations committee that dealt with the crisis.

“We heard that hundreds of people had fled from their houses and sought refuge at the local auditorium,” says Sethabela. “We visited the premises to conduct a needs assessment of the displaced people. The number of the displaced people grew, as workers returned to find their homes looted and destroyed.”

Sethabela said he and a team of volunteers helped to distribute blankets and food parcels to the vulnerable people.

“We worked until very late at night. But we did not mind because we were helping our fellow human beings.

“Initially, the displaced people were scared of the local township dwellers. They were not sure whether they would be attacked. But we regularly spoke to them to rebuild their trust in us. They also saw we were always willing to help them. We ended up befriending them.”

South African Red Cross volunteers helped provide essential services, including cooking facilities and food, trauma counselling to the grieving, emergency food packs for those returning to their home countries and psychosocial support. Volunteers were trained by the ICRC and the International Federation in the use of ration cards, warehouse management, logistics and stock control. The ICRC also provided 15,000 blankets and 2,000 tarpaulins. The response from the public was heartening. Individuals, companies and institutions donated more than US$ 1.8 million to the South African Red Cross.

Nompumelelo Dludla, 24, a public relations management student at Durban University of Technology, put her studies on hold so she could volunteer for two weeks in Durban, first in the central kitchen and then collecting and distributing donated goods.

Initially she was shocked at the violence. “I did not expect that such a thing could happen in our ‘rainbow nation’.”

During the early days of the violence, she was struck by the sad faces of the displaced people. “But as days went by, they started to smile. They were very happy with the help we were giving them, though the pain of being unceremoniously chased away from their homes could not go away.”

Good people

Dludla was also encouraged to see that many people did not support the violence. “The whole experience was an eye-opener for me. I saw another good side of people. I remember one day, there was an old lady who came to donate food — she was crying because she was touched a lot by the situation.

“You could see she hurt. Her emotions taught me a lot about human compassion. It also showed that in our country there were a lot of good people.”

Dludla says she hopes the situation can be resolved soon. “It is very important for South Africans to learn to live with other nationalities. Soon we will host the 2010 Football World Cup that will be attended by people from all over the world. We have to make the event a huge success for our country.”

Minnie Haule, a Cape Town volunteer with more than 25 years in the Red Cross, emphasizes how she found a lot of satisfaction in helping during the crisis.

“My experiences have reinforced that it is important to think about other people before you consider your own interests. You are forced to learn that you should not turn your back on another human being who does not know where he or she is going to eat or sleep.

“You also learn to care about humanity in general. Some of the affected people were angry. They did not like South Africans at all. But I had to convince them that there were good people in South Africa.” She gradually gained the trust of most of the foreign nationals she was working with.

Starting in May, she and her team of four women provided two cooked meals a day to several shelters that accommodated the displaced people. At the height of the crisis, she worked 14-hour days.

Future directions

Relief efforts went beyond addressing the immediate needs of those displaced by the violence. The Red Cross included affected communities in decision-making processes by seeking their representation on the committees formed in each shelter.

In addition, the South African Red Cross Society, with support from the International Federation, also plans to launch an anti-discrimination programme in the coming months, under the banner ‘Together for Humanity’. This campaign will draw on successful examples from other National Societies.

In mid-September, South African authorities announced the creation of a number of information points to assist people staying in shelters to reintegrate host communities. These desks would be open every day, allowing people to find the information they needed to resettle in their communities, to move to new locations or to return to their countries of origin. They are being staffed by a host of different organizations including the South African Red Cross Society.


A displaced mother and child rest in a tent at Primrose shelter centre in Johannesburg.



























Vuyo Bavuma
Vuyo Bavuma is South African Red Cross Society communications adviser.



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