News of the violent displacement of foreign nationals (mostly Zimbabwean and Malawian) in the Overberg (Southern Cape) town of Bredasdorp inspired members of the Cape Town’s interfaith communities to take a deep south road trip.
We made contact with two faith based organisations and drew up a quick list of what was needed, being toiletries, children’s clothes and bedding. Food was further down the list. Many Capetonians responded generously and our vehicle was choc-a-block with provisions and good wishes.
First stop was Bredasdorp Muslim Centre where some 20-30 families were being put up in the Mosque. Few men were present, children ran about, and many women sat about uncertainly amongst piles of goods either owned or donated.
Imam Yasier Benjamin told us of signs of a clear and co-ordinated campaign to stir up resentment amongst the local Xhosa community. This resulted in unrest in which many “foreigners” had their homes and businesses destroyed.
Benjamin, who has lead Africa’s southernmost mosque for 18 years, displayed a generous spirted service towards all people regardless of identity. He said there were only two types of people, Bredesdorpers, and Others. Local is the new global.
We were sadly unable for logistical reasons to meet with another involved party, the Dutch Reformed Church who together with other churches are also working to bring relief to their town.
Third stop was the town’s sports field, called “Glaskasteel”. A white resident was only too pleased to direct us there and we sensed absolutely no antipathy towards us outsiders (despite our much darker average skin tone).
The complex is housing hundreds seeking refuge, with a kitchen staff dedicated to feeding them. “The are not used to our pap, but need bread and tea”, observed one.
We asked these bringers of relief if any of the township churches were involved in the aid program, they said not really, implying not that they did not care but that it might be a too-costly stance in a toxic environment where foreign nationals had been demonized with charges of “stealing jobs”.
So the cracks revealed themselves. At one end, the society is more cohesive than ever before, multicultural, multi faith, and economically mixed. But at the other, simmering with resentment towards strangers, and largely absent from the discourse that is interfaith.
As we left the kitchens of the Glaskasteel, Cecil Plaatjies led us in a Buddhist chant for peace and all that is good. It may have been the first time that Bredasdorp had heard a prayer of this nature, but the “amens” that followed were genuine assent to the very human activity of prayer. Another of our number, Imam Salieg Issacs, inspired by this outpouring of goodwill, stated to much applause,
“When we went in exile [in Zimababwe, during apartheid], no one killed us, man! Why are we doing these things to other people? … It is not reflective of the 56 million people of South Africa.”Imam Salieg Issacs