In light of the recent very sad news regarding the xenophobic riots happening around South Africa, I have decided to post a blog entry that I had previously decided to keep to myself. For those of you not up to date, the violence occurring around the country is primarily aimed at African nationals living within South Africa, both legally and illegally.
You can read any theory you want as to why this is going on, but the reality seems to be very plain - South Africans living in poverty in the cities are fed up and frustrated with the fact that most of their lives have not improved since the end of apartheid some 14 years ago. The government has done some to help uplift the poor black population, but not nearly enough. It is both overwhelmed and incapable of providing for such a large under privileged population.
Now, in a very sad turn of events, many poor South Africans within townships around Gauteng, have turned against neighbours and strangers living amongst them from different countries. Their claim is that the immigrants to South Africa are here to take their jobs, and their wives or husbands. They seem to be blaming the immigrants for the lot of their troubles. I just heard on the radio yesterday that the violence has begun spreading to parts of Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Western Cape.
Just so everyone knows, the volunteers with Peace Corps in this country for the most part, do not feel in danger from these recent events. However, we are being smart about all this, and we are being extra-cautious to stay away from affected areas. We don't feel as threatened by the violence mainly because we are not the "foreigners" being targeted. The spread of this violence and the reasons for it all has affected many of us however, because we have made many friends among South Africans, as well as Africans from other countries who have been major players in our lives. We are concerned about them and their safety.
I wanted to take the time to share the story of one of my friends from Zimbabwe. Hopefully it will give you a better picture of why there are so many immigrants coming into SA, and also, it will attest to the incredibly brave and strong character of so many people simply trying to make better lives for themselves here.
During a recent experience here at the southern tip of Africa, I had the opportunity to meet a large number of young, motivated and compassionate South Africans, volunteering their time at a camp to work with children infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. I got to know many of them very well - their backgrounds, their current situation, their goals for the future etc.
Of all the of the stories I heard at camp, one stood out amongst all the others. It was the story not of one of the young South African counselors, but rather of my friend Xola, who had recently fled his native country of Zimbabwe to find refuge and seek out further education here in SA.
With his permission given and his name changed, this is his story:
***Back in Zimbabwe, Xola had been working for Masiye Camp for the past 4 years. Masiye is an NGO that runs different types of camps for children. Xola was in charge of coordinating and setting up different activities and programs that would be used throughout the camps run in Zimbabwe. He had always loved working with children, and this job provided him the perfect opportunity to work closely with so many of them, helping to give them a sense of purpose, strength, and direction, in a country where the population is deemed to be virtually powerless under the tyrannical rule of "Uncle Bob" Mugabe.
Xola had described to me some of the initiatives he had started up before his time working for this specific NGO. Because he had always had a passion for working with kids, during his teen years, he would go door to door in his neighbourhood and talk to the families living nearby. From these house visits, he would gather information about the living situation of many of the children in the area. Zimbabwe, like much of the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, is hard hit by HIV/AIDS. What Xola found was that there were many instances of young children who had become the head of the household after one or both of their parents were left incapacitated or dead from AIDS.
Xola would organize group meetings after school for the kids to have some free and creative time, and then worked out a rotating schedule, whereby the group of children who had assembled, would take turns visiting each other's house to help with everyday chores. They would help clean the house, wash dishes, help cook meals, look after younger siblings and more. The next day, they would all visit another person's house, and so everyone had at least some help during the week doing what they must do.
Xola had been working with his NGO for about 3 years under the disapproving eye of Zimbabwe's government. It was explained to me that Mugabe's government sees NGO's as a nuisance and threat to their rule, and often does what they can to dismantle local NGO's or put extreme constraints upon them whereby they would essentially have to operate and perform according to the government's own bidding.
Unfortunately for Xola and many other young Zimbabweans, the government had much worse plans in store for them, besides putting them out of their jobs. For many years now, Mugabe's government has been actively abducting young men and women from their jobs or homes and forcing them to serve in the military.
Xola was abducted in mid-2007 with a number of other people both from his NGO and from the area near where he lived. Once in the military, he and everyone else were beaten every day to "toughen them up". They awoke early in the mornings and went to bed late at nite, carrying out tasks during the day that no one wished to do.
They were given assignments to carry out such as locating and capturing leaders of rebel groups. They would go into communities where such leaders would be thought to be hiding, and were forced to beat and assault the locals in order to extract information from them. If they did not do as they were told, they would be beaten themselves, and sometimes much worse.
Xola told of instances where disciplinary action would be taken on one of the other members of his group. He or she would disappear with more senior members of the military and soon enough, a week had passed and that person was no longer coming back. Execution was one of the most extreme persuasive actions taken to ensure obedience.
Out on assignment one day, Xola and others were not looking forward to what they were tasked to do - more search and seizure, assaulting innocent people etc. Upon arriving at location, the driver of the truck who had been with the military for a few years, had said to Xola and a few others, "If you don't like it here and want to get out, just do exactly what they say for the next few weeks. Make sure they have no idea you wish to leave, and I will let you know when and how you will have your chance to escape."
Hopeful for the chance to leave the horrors of the life they were living now, they did exactly as the driver said, and obeyed all orders from their commanders as if nothing was wrong. A few weeks later, on Christmas Day, after 3 1/2 months in the army, while tasked for another assignment, their opportunity came.
The driver had driven them to their drop off point in the thick of the woods. He said to them, "Now is your chance to escape. I am supposed to pick you up here tomorrow. When I come back and find you not here, I will have to report it. So run fast, gather what you can, and head for one of the borders."
With that, the driver left. About eight of them ran off in different directions, Xola with another friend. They ran for hours to the nearest town. Xola then contacted his family to tell them what was happening. He asked them to meet him and his friend somewhere to drop off supplies. His family brought him South African rand (Zimbabwe's money is worthless at this point in time), food, his passport, and a few other things to help him on his way. His friend was unable to get in touch with her family or get any thing she needed, so Xola shared everything he had with her.
The next day, Xola hopped on a bus headed for Jo'burg, South Africa. He was extremely nervous as the bus approached the border, but was hugely relieved when they encountered no delays. Apparently, word had not gotten out yet about their escape.
Xola has since joined thousands upon thousands (some say millions) of Zimbabwean refugees residing in South Africa. Since he had missed the deadline to apply to study at one of the universities nearby, he began looking for other things to keep him busy. While online one day, he came across the website for the camp that we were to eventualy meet at, and applied for a counselor position. Though it was only a temporary position, everyone could tell how happy Xola was to finally be back working with kids again.
His energy and laugh were absolutely infectious, and the kids took to him like bears to honey. They loved him and couldn't get enough. He always made the extra effort to understand more about each of his campers and would often talk to them one on one to connect with them and make them feel safe and comfortable. His actions were a very big influence on not just me, but many other of the counselors there as well.
Now, Xola is waiting for his turn to apply again for further study. In the meantime, I'm sure he will be looking for other opportunities to continue to help improve the lives of the children in his life. He hopes one day soon to go back to Zimbabwe, once Mugabe is no longer in power (which may be sooner than later if the international community exerts enough pressure for the most recent elections to be considered valid), and to start up more camps to reach more children across the country.
Xola has made such a huge impact on my life, and I hope that one day, I will be able to repay him and go assist at one of his camps in his home country.
But for now, we wait, and do what we can, with what we have, where we are.***
After I heard the news about the riots in Jo'burg, I called Xola to check on him, and he assured me he was doing ok. I was hugely relieved, and I have been sure to keep tabs on him and will continue to do so until this violence dies down. He's an extremely strong person though - he will shine thru all of this and come out on top in the end.
4 months ago