The Methodist Church of Southern Africa is in the process of bringing an eviction order against hundreds of refugees, who have been living in its Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town since last year, on the grounds of health and safety.
“The grounds are what we’ve been saying all along – it’s been a health and safety risk from the beginning, which I mentioned when people were already there,” said Reverend Alan Storey.
He added the safe space was no longer a safe space due to the risks, and the church would be defeating its original offer and intention – of safety – to let the group stay.
Storey said the risk of Covid-19 had brought an additional sense of urgency, but they were not doing it just to clear out the church.
He added there were children who have not been outside the church on Greenmarket Square since December 29, when a leadership dispute split the group in two – with one inside and another outside the church.
A note has also been put up outside the church recently by the group to ask tourists not to enter as they have usually done as Covid-19 measures are in place.
On Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the declaration of a national state of disaster, and measures include limiting public gatherings to 100 people.
Religious institutions have announced the postponement of planned mass gatherings, and changed the way prayers are offered.
One of the leaders of the “inside” group at the Central Methodist Mission, JP Balous, appeared in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court on Thursday and his case was postponed to 30 March, according to Western Cape National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Eric Ntabazalila.
Balous was arrested for the alleged intimidation of SA Human Rights Commission commissioner Chris Nissen, and also on an unrelated assault case. During an appearance on 7 March pandemonium ensued during court proceedings.
Storey said he had spoken to the leader of the “inside” group, Aline Bukuru, to express his concern over the health and safety of the group, which includes at least 50 small children.
“We forget that it [the cramped living conditions] is a complete fire hazard.”
The group originally camped out at the Waldorf Arcade where the UN High Commissioner for Refugee’s office is based to demand relocation to a third country, citing xenophobia.
They were removed by the police at the end of October last year who used water cannons and stun grenades. Thereafter, Storey offered them shelter as they wandered around Greenmarket Square in a daze with their luggage.
They have been told it is not possible as a group to be relocated, and must apply individually.
The “outside” group eventually decamped to a site opposite the Cape Town Central police station after being removed by law enforcement invoking by-laws against living and cooking on the pavements around the church.
Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs has asked for feedback on what the department and City of Cape Town intend doing about the situation.
Storey said lawyers were still working on the application, and he did not have a court date yet.
In a church notice, also announcing there would be no services due to Covid-19, he wrote: “In closing, I have a great concern about the refugees in the CMM sanctuary…
“… They are attempting to practice frequent hand washing, etc. But the truth is the conditions inside the sanctuary are ripe for a virus of any sort to spread, let alone the highly contagious coronavirus. As a result, our legal processes are addressing this matter with increased urgency.”