South Africa: Red Cross volunteers personify spirit of compassion

Published: 29 May 2008 0:00 CET

Nooshin Erfani, International Federation in Johannesburg

‘Nineteen-year old youth, living in a township’: that is the profile the South African media has given to those who have taken part in the country’s recent urban violence. But Makhosazana Mbele is proof that not everyone who fits the profile is part of the violence.

The soft-spoken teenage girl, known as Khosi to her friends, is visibly upset by what happened to the foreigners in her township of Thembisa. “I saw the burning shacks and the looted stores. I don’t know why people do such things”.

The first attacks against foreigners took place in Alexandra Township, in Johannesburg on the night of Sunday 11 May 2008. The attacks have been extremely violent, with mobs burning the shacks of non-South Africans, and beating and chasing the foreigners, who flee to the nearby police stations or community halls for shelter. The latest figures indicate that more than 51,000 people have been displaced.

Khosi is taking a well-earned rest outside the Primrose temporary shelter, where nearly 1000 people are seeking refuge from the recent violent attacks that have driven them from their homes, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

“I have been a volunteer with the South African Red Cross for about a year now, but I haven’t seen anything like this before,” she says, pointing to the rows of tents in the field opposite the Church hall where she has been working all morning. The team of Red Cross staff and volunteers are getting ready to distribute donated clothes to the destitute men, women and children, waiting patiently in queues outside. The clothes have been sorted into piles and a ticketing system devised so that each person would receive 3 items of clothing, which they could choose themselves.

“I am a Red Cross volunteer because I want to help people. I will always keep helping people. I am going to be a nursing sister,” explains Khosi, tugging on her Red Cross t-shirt, “so that even when I am not wearing the Red Cross logo, I can carry on helping people”.

Tommy Mokgotla is a LifeLine counsellor on the National AIDS Helpline, working at the Braamfontein Counselling Centre, in mid-town Johannesburg. Today is his day off, and he is helping at the Jeppe Police Station, where more than 1200 people are camped. The ground is wet and muddy, a result of the rainy and freezing weather people have been exposed to. “Some people slept under there,” Tommy points to an overhang on the abandoned high-rise adjacent to the Station, “wherever they could find shelter from the rain. Where you see clothing, that’s where people are sleeping”. Drying clothes hang everywhere: on branches, on the barbed wire, on the grass.

There are four large tents, and a temporary area has also been cordoned off in the parking lot, but there is clearly not enough room for everyone. The tents are communal and people have to sleep on the ground, in near freezing temperatures. The South African Red Cross Society is part of the team providing services at Jeppe, along with Oxfam, MSF and the local South African Police Services. They are distributing hot food, blankets and hygiene and baby items, most of which has been donated by the South African public.

“When these attacks first started, I thought it was the end of the world,” says Tommy, a 33-year old man living in Tsakane township, and a Red Cross volunteer since 1993. “I am happy to be able to help as much as I can. People keep thanking me for my help.

I am helping with the needs assessment [the process where Red Cross volunteers interview displaced people, to evaluate what their situation and needs are] but sometimes, I can’t help myself, and I do a little counselling too. People really need it here,” says Tommy, as he turns and smiles at the next person, waiting to be assisted.

Since the beginning of the attacks, the South African Red Cross Society has deployed some 150 staff and volunteers in more than 25 sites and temporary shelters (including police stations and schools) where displaced people have found refuge. They have been tirelessly distributing essential food, hygiene articles and clothing to the victims of this violence as well as providing psychosocial support, and first aid services. The sick and the wounded are referred to clinics and hospitals. The Red Cross has also set up a tracing service for missing family members, in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).


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