The large group of foreign nationals seeking refuge in Cape Town’s Central Methodist Church are preparing to leave on foot for another country after their hospitality there draws to a close, one of the leaders told News24 on Friday.
“The pastor [Reverend Alan Storey] said we have to vacate the church,” said Jean-Pierre Bassou.
He was speaking to News24 after interfaith leaders were injured when they were charged by some of the foreign nationals who have lived in the church since October 30.
That was the day they were evicted by the police after a sit-in at the Waldorf Arcade near the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in the CBD.
“He gave us two weeks and he said he can no longer keep us here. We thank him for welcoming people during the time we were running,” said Bassou.
“So, we are preparing ourselves to leave with our feet to the nearest country where we will feel safe.”
Namibia is one of the countries mentioned as a possible destination by the leaders.
Earlier on Friday, at least three people were injured when the meeting with the interfaith leaders became heated.
The SA Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) Reverend Chris Nissen was among those injured when bottles and other objects were thrown at them.
“I got a knock on the head, and sprained my finger,” Nissen told News24.
Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba said he was also hit on the head with a flying object, and was developing a bump that he was soothing with an ice pack.
He added the primary reason for being there was to help escalate intervention for the group of around 600 people, including children, and to provide pastoral support to other religious leaders who had been working tirelessly to help where they could at the church.
“People were shouting ‘no more South Africa’,” said Makgoba, adding that this view of South Africans pained him.
He added things went awry when a pastor he does not know took the microphone and all “hell broke loose”.
“They grabbed the microphone from him and beat him up.”
Makgoba brushed off the injury to his head, saying it was “one of the disadvantages of being tall”.
Storey said contrary to a previous report, he was not injured.
He had opened the church’s doors after watching the police use stun grenades and water cannons during the eviction.
In a statement after Friday’s incident, Storey said the delegation had included the SAHRC, Anglican Church, Africa Diaspora Forum, and pastors known to the community.
“The hope was to inform them of the discussions that had taken place over the last week which had been facilitated by the SAHRC as well for me to request that people begin to vacate the sanctuary.
“The chair of the human rights commission and myself were able to speak to everyone. But when one of the pastors [known to the refugees] tried to speak – some people refused to allow him to do so and thereafter the pastor and other members of the above-mentioned group were assaulted.”
Storey said a semblance of calm was restored with the help of some of the refugee leaders, and refugees intervening to protect people.
“From my previous communications, I reiterated our safety and health concerns and continue to request the refugees to vacate the church with dignity and peace. I call on the relevant agencies to give support.
“I call all to be calm. To respect people – even the people who have done this. We will continue to talk. We will continue to expect the best from people. All of us have the ability to be patient and peaceful and I call on all of us to activate that ability now,” said Storey.
Bassou said people became angry when some NGOs which they did not want anything to do with joined the interfaith delegation on Friday.
They also found out that some of the people at a meeting on Monday had “gone behind their backs” and interacted with organisations they wanted nothing to do with.
Monday’s meeting included representatives from the departments of home affairs, health, social development; Western Cape Premier Alan Winde’s office, the SAHRC and UNHCR.
Bassou said they made it clear that organisations such as the Scalabrini Centre and Adonis Musati Project that focus on refugee support as well as the University of Cape Town’s Law Clinic and Sonke Gender Justice were not welcome at Monday’s talks.
“They just care about getting their funding and living their lives while children here cannot get birth certificates,” he added.
Bassou said they were also angry over what they regarded as misinformation about their demand to be moved as a group, adding it was not true that they wanted every refugee to be relocated – just the Pretoria and Cape Town groups who conducted the sit-ins.
Their primary demand is to be evacuated to another country by the UNHCR, but not to their country of origin.
They told News24 they could not go back to their countries of origin for their own safety.
They said they experienced xenophobia in South Africa, and have had enough.
On Friday, the church was beginning to show the strain of accommodating so many people, with the smell of used nappies hanging in the air, and people falling asleep from the stifling heat inside the building. Some spilled out onto the cobbled streets for fresh air, while others tried to do their laundry in plastic basins.
Bassou denied claims that people were being kept in the church against their will by the group’s leaders.
He said they were now planning when to leave the church and which country they would be heading to, but they wanted assurances from the police that they would be safe.
They have been given notices offering assistance from the Department of Home Affairs to help replace lost or confiscated documents; to help children with the documentation to get schooling and clinic care; and to make sure those who want to leave the country voluntarily do so safely.
The UNHCR also distributed notices stating it was concerned about the conditions in which the two groups were living, given that they did not have proper sanitation or sleeping spaces, and that their children were not attending school, and were playing near traffic.
It gave a list of partners it works with who offer free services.
Said Bassou: “We are sick of getting these pieces of A4 paper.”
Meanwhile, in Pretoria the police removed a group which occupied the premises of the UNHCR on Thursday.
Four police officers were injured during the operation on Friday.
This after they were given three days to vacate sites they were camping on near the UNHCR’s offices after two associations asked they be moved.