June 23 2008 -Accompanied by guys from The Red Cross, Rescue South Africa and the head of CSI from Investec we started off at Wadeville Camp near Germiston where around 300 tents have been pitched.
As I sit down to write this I have very mixed emotions. If I write about what a great job the guys from Gauteng Disaster Management and Rescue South Africa who organised the camps have done, I’ll have criticism that ‘we don’t want to make them too comfortable or they’ll never go’. On the other hand if I talk about the thinnest of tents where one Zimbabwean man told me ‘It’s just as cold inside as out at night’, people will say how unfairly these people are being treated.
We started off at Wadeville Camp near Germiston,this camp houses mainly Malawians, Mozambicans and Zimbabweans with a few South Africans whose native tongue unfortunately for them is Shangaan… The first thing you become aware of is the high level of security from the manning of the entry gate to the barbed wire surrounding the camp to keep out those who’d seek to cause more unrest and the guards on horseback riding around the camp to make sure nothing untoward happens within the wire. The inhabitants of this camp go about their daily chores on the outside accepting their latest fate. When asked if they want to go home only the Malawians seem interested – the Zimbabweans are waiting for after the run-off elections, but don’t hold out much hope of change in their homeland. The Mozambicans say they will starve if they return and this way whatever South African rands they earn goes a long way to support their families back home.
From here we moved on to the camp opposite Rand Airport – a bigger camp, again mostly occupied with our closer neighbours. As we arrived people were patiently queuing – something that’s a regular occurrence in their lives – for identification badges with their photos. This is vital in the camps to keep track of the residents and ensure food and supplies go to the right people. Again security was everywhere and all conceivable problems are being addressed, especially fire – which looking at the tents is a real hazard. After all in this freezing weather fires are essential. The organisers have thought of this and barrels cut in two with supplies of wood are being provided – obviously to be used outside the tents. Food is a big issue and the organisers are very aware that if they don’t provide enough food fights are likely to break out. So currently caterers are supplying two meals a day with the Red Cross giving food parcels in between to sustain these people.
The next camp we were warned was not so peaceful as this one – this was Rifle Range Road, occupied largely by people from the DRC, Burundi and Tanzania – hostile to their other Southern African brothers. Tempers regularly flare and fights have break out. Tents are fiercely protected and their names and home countries written in front. Here the atmosphere is tense with security on constant alert. On one side of the camp is an industrial area dense with factories and on the other side houses. As we arrive an Indian mother and son arrive with bags of clothing and food, closely followed by an Afrikaans lady with a black dustbin bag full of clothes. “We’ve got used to them being here now,” she tells me. “Our church has decided to help in any way we can,” she says as she watches carefully to see where her precious booty is put.
This is a common occurrence in the camps – people from all walks of life arriving to see what assistance they can give. As usual it takes a tragedy such as this to bring peoples together as one South Africa.
Finally we arrive at the smallest, yet the most publicised camp, named DBSA because of its proximity to the Development Bank in Midrand. This was the first camp to be erected and because of its proximity to some expensive housing, naturally the residents weren’t initially too happy with the situation. But things have calmed down and with just 350 people here from mostly Zimbabwe and Mozambique it’s a peaceful atmosphere. Here someone donated a large tent that houses some gas burners for cooking and again a desk registering the residents.
Just one elderly man is unhappy. He’s been in South Africa for 20 years and his life has been quiet but now he’s sick and after all that’s happened to him in the last few years he wants to go home.
One thing is the same in all the camps. The children with smiling faces, playing with other children’s discarded toys, bits of old wood and equipment around the camp unaware of what fate holds in store for them, but perhaps in their eyes we see hope for a better future.
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