Matthew Cochrane, communications manager for Southern Africa zone in Johannesburg
Wadeville, an industrial zone to the south of Johannesburg, is home to just some of the tens of thousands displaced over the past weeks by outbreaks of violence in South Africa.
Here, about 900 people huddle in UNHCR tents on a barren site wedged against a highway. That road will take you to Johannesburg, Durban or Pretoria – or to the airport and any number of destinations beyond. But for the people living in Wadeville, there is little sense of what their next destination might be.
Outside one of the tents, three mothers are sitting on a rug, chatting and playing with the kids that run past. Magdelene, Safira S and Safira N are originally from Mozambique. Most of the people in this particular site are from Mozambique, though many people from other countries such as Zimbabwe and Malawi have also been affected.
Until recently, Magdelene, Safira and Safira were living with their families in Holomisa, an informal settlement near Johannesburg. About a month ago, these women, along with their families and many friends and neighbours, were forced to flee, as resentment against foreigners reached boiling point.
At first threats were only verbal, recalls Magdelene. “They said they didn’t want Mozambicans living there anymore.”
Things quickly turned more serious. “We were beaten and all our belongings were taken,” she says. Bewildered by the brutal behaviour of people they had called neighbours and friends, they fled.
Many people initially sought refuge in town halls and police stations. Soon, sites like Wadeville were established, where organizations like the South Africa Red Cross Society could provide basic assistance such as shelter, food, clean water and medical assistance.
Many of those affected have decided to return to their home countries. Already, the Red Cross societies in Mozambique and Malawi are working with their governments to accommodate huge influxes of people.
But for some like Magdelene and the Safiras, going ‘home’ is not an option. Magdelene and her family fled Mozambique during that country’s 16 year civil war. There is no house, community or family there to return to.
Safira S followed her husband to South Africa two years ago after he had made the journey earlier looking for work.
“It would be very embarrassing to go back to Mozambique with nothing,” she explains as her eight month old daughter Gina wriggles impatiently against her chest. “If we go back with nothing we will be the talk of the town – a failure.”
And besides, explains Safira S, the economy in Mozambique is not as good as in South Africa. There are more jobs here and things cost much less.
A right to dignity
Françoise Le Goff is the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Southern Africa zone.
“The needs of people who are unable or who don’t want to return to their countries of origin need to be addressed,” she says. “But this is not an issue that can be easily solved. How can we expect them to easily return to communities that turned against them so violently?”
For the time being, it seems likely that many thousands will remain living in sites like Wadeville where organizations like the Red Cross can support them. However, in the longer term, a solution will need to be found.
“These people have the right to live in dignity and with hope,” says Le Goff.