A crisis is brewing in Cape Town’s CBD as more than 1,000 people camp in an arcade and demand that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees evacuates them from South Africa due to safety fears.
Speaking on behalf of a group calling themselves Women and Children at Concern, Pole Pole wa Pole said the people camping there were refugees and asylum seekers who no longer felt safe in South Africa due to prejudice and violence they had experienced.
“They are demanding to be taken to a safer place because South Africa is not safe to these people anymore,” Wa Pole told News24.
The occupation in the corridor of the Waldorf Arcade between St George’s Street and Burg Street began on October 8 and has spread out into Burg and St George’s streets themselves.
Women and children sat listlessly on mattresses, while queues of people formed outside to hand over copies of their asylum papers to a group of men and women collecting them.
The intention is to hand them to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency so that urgent travel plans can be made to take them out of South Africa.
They do not want to go back to their countries of origin. But they have decided that they can no longer live in fear, and cannot put up with the discrimination they say they face daily, any longer.
“In South Africa, there are two birth certificates,” he explained. “A yellow one for a South African, and a white one for refugees. Immediately refugees are different.”
He said that when people applied for jobs they were asked for their “green ID book” – the South African identity document which is being phased out in favour of cards.
Their asylum papers – which stipulate that they have the right to work – seem to carry no weight with prospective employers.
He said many people had lived in South Africa for 20 years, but are still subjected to being “othered”.
He said people at the arcade lived in fear of being harmed simply because they were not South African.
“I can guarantee you that by tonight I will receive a phone call saying that another foreigner has been killed,” he said.
Photographs of people who had been injured or killed were pasted on the pillars at the arcade, near banners.
One banner read “South Africa you killing refugees” and another “The UNHCR Refugee Convention of 1951 Geneva must be applied to SA refugees, our rights are not negotiable, Article 33”.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has been at pains to stress that South Africans are not xenophobic but has sent envoys to countries whose citizens were affected.
Attacks on foreign nationals were also raised at the World Economic Forum Africa meeting in Cape Town last month. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni stood in for Ramaphosa when he stepped away to meet people protesting against gender-based violence.
Mboweni said: “As an African, I should settle wherever I want to settle in Africa.”
But these sentiments held no sway with the group camping out along the popular lunch-time stroll lanes.
“Some of us are business people. When our businesses are burnt or looted, we receive no compensation. People say we pay no tax, so we must not complain. We pay tax for everything. I even paid tax on this pen I am holding,” said Wa Pole.
Private security guards who work at the nearby buildings stood at a distance as the crowd of people on either side of the Waldorf Arcade swelled.
Wa Pole said people from Burundi, Somalia and Bangladesh were among those demanding to be taken out of South Africa.
“These people are afraid. They fled their home countries due to well-founded fears of persecution attached to their ethnicity, social, or political affiliations. They found the same persecution here,” he said.
He said nobody was helping them, and they were told they don’t “belong here”.
He said they were waiting to hear from the UNHCR about their plight.
Comment was not immediately available from the Department of Home Affairs or the UNHCR, but in September, the UNCHR expressed concern over recurring violence against foreign nationals, including refugees and asylum seekers, in South Africa.
This was after violence in Katlehong, near Johannesburg, left 12 people dead – two of whom were foreign nationals.
“Our staff are receiving a significant increase in calls to our telephone hotlines in recent weeks, with people reporting that their homes and businesses have been looted, buildings and property have been set on fire, increased gang activity on the streets and rising incidents of sexual and gender-based violence,” UNHCR spokesperson Charlie Yaxley said in briefing notes from Geneva at the time.
Yaxley said refugees were afraid and some did not go to work, thereby losing their income.
During the Katlehong violence, 800 people – mostly from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe – sought safety in community halls.
Of those, 73 Malawians, 138 Mozambicans, 314 Nigerians and 72 Zimbabweans had decided to return already,” Yaxley said then in September.
A private airline also assisted Nigerian nationals who wanted to leave South Africa.