Cape Town is getting ready to remove refugees from the streets and sidewalks around Greenmarket Square, in line with a court order, raising the ire of refugee leader JP Balus.
“We are still here if they want to kill us. Someone who is suffering will always have nothing to lose if you kill him. There is no-one who is going to fight them because they are powerless, they are defenceless, but if that is their decision, so be it,” said Balus.
“Let it be, the whole international community, the whole world may know how South Africans are treating refugees in their country,” he said.
He was speaking to TimesLIVE at the Central Methodist Mission, where hundreds of refugees have been staying in the hopes of being relocated to another country. Balus said that country was not SA or any of the refugees’ home countries — excluding much of Sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
An estimated 1,000 refugees have been living inside and outside the church since October 31 2019, after being forcibly removed by police from outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) offices in the CBD. The refugees began their protest after xenophobic violence broke out at the end of August last year.
During the interview, Balus held in his arms a one-month-old baby born in the Methodist church in the midst of the crisis and named JP by its mother, in honour of their leader.
Two of his supporters patted him down with toilet paper and served him cold water.
Moments before, he was leading a group of children in front of the church pulpit in Michael Jackson’s song, Heal the World, adapted to the times: “There are refugees dying, in SA where we are, let’s make it a better place for you and for me.”
Another song rings: “Bye-bye SA, bye-bye xenophobic country.”
The words are intentionally provocative, as are many of the things Balus says, such as: “When you want to cure, you need to speak about the disease that you have.”
On Monday, he denounced as xenophobic the ruling by acting High Court judge Daniel Thulare, who ruled in favour of an urgent application by the City of Cape Town to evict refugees from the streets and sidewalks around the church.
“(The ruling) is nothing new to what we have known about the way SA treats refugees in their country. As a refugee, you have no rights in SA. They treat refugees like faeces, like second-class citizens. It will never happen in SA that refugees can be vindicated,” he said.
The High Court ruling gives the city and the department of home affairs seven days to process the foreigners, according to the Immigration Act, after which the city will be allowed to enforce its bylaws.
Balus said the situation for refugees in SA was “worse than apartheid” and in a nod to the antics in parliament last week, he questioned whether apartheid was a crime against humanity.
“They were fighting the so-called apartheid. If they are doing these things to us, that means there has never been apartheid before. If they went through those things, they wouldn’t be doing this to us. You can see that the judge is still in denial of xenophobic killings, the massacres happening against refugees. If he’s still in denial, there can never be any apartheid and apartheid cannot be classified as a crime against humanity,” said Balus.
“The UN pronounced itself on the apartheid regime is a crime against humanity. They should also consider this xenophobic massacre that they are doing against refugees,” he said.
“To me, it’s … a big test to the South African government, because it shows that they don’t have any right to go outside and start crying about apartheid. The same repressive laws they said they were fighting against during apartheid are the same laws that they are bringing and enforcing against refugees,” said Balus.
He said living in a refugee camp would be preferable to their situation.
“You know why they brought that black judge? It’s because they know, when it’s black, there will be no argument.
“This government is theirs, they make decisions in this country, so if we are suffering, who is making us suffer? It’s black South Africans,” he said.
“To me, I just see something bad is going to happen because refugees have nowhere to go and you cannot force someone to go to a place where people are wanting to kill them and if they go to the police, tell them to go back,” said Balus.
People living in the shacks outside the church say they have brought all their belongings with them. On Monday, it did not seem as though there was any hurry to pack up. Activities such as cooking and hairstyling continued as normal.
But they echoed Balus’ words, saying they were ready to be killed.
Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith signalled that a methodical process would follow the court’s ruling.
“The city is quite happy about the ruling because it now allows us to pave a clear way towards resolving this situation, which has become utterly untenable around Greenmarket Square,” he said.
“Within seven days we will make the necessary arrangements with the department of home affairs and others, and we will have a venue where the screening can take place. And then, after that screening is done, we will then proceed with the enforcement of the bylaws.”
Smith said the refugees would not be allowed to return to the area around the church.
“The UNHCR told them three months ago that there was no legal possibility of them being relocated to a further country. The city and provincial government, and national government, have made it clear that nobody is willing to offer them alternative land.”
He said past experience had taught that setting up temporary shelter in the form of a refugee camp had historically led to a situation where people had to be evicted, came at great expense to the state and set a dangerous precedent.
“The next thousand can then step forward and say we have the same rights. Our situation is the same, we have the same fears, now you need to accommodate us. Now you are sitting with a riot on your hands because it’s them queue-jumping over the South Africans who have legitimately been sitting on a housing waiting list for two decades,” he said.
“We have offered the opportunity to reintegrate the people back into the community where they came from before they came to Greenmarket Square.
“Just as every South African is responsible for his or her wellbeing, so every refugee is.
“There is no special provision for them and if such a provision must be created it must be created by the department of home affairs. It’s not a local government competency,” said Smith.