South Africa: Tension Mounts Amid Refugee Leadership Tussle At Cape Town Church

Refugees are seen leaving while police cordon off the area (file photo).
30 December 2019

Tension is mounting among refugees who appear to have split into two camps at the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town.

The police released a stun grenade on Monday afternoon to stop heated arguments in front of the church on Greenmarket Square, where self-appointed guards were controlling access.

A police Nyala idled in front of the door as a police officer told one of the guards that people should be allowed to enter and leave as they please.

Outside the church one of the leaders, Papy Sukami, told News24 he and JP Balous, with whom he had previously led the group of several hundred people taking refuge, had had a falling out.

"He abused power," alleged Sukami. "People are victims of his behaviour."

He said Balous was chasing away people who were trying to help them, including Gift of the Givers.

"We said to him he can just sit on the bench and we are going to lead the people to find a solution."

He said things came to a head during Sunday prayers and alleged that, while the group was praying, weapons were brought in and there was a confrontation.

Preacher Kande Serge Kande told News24 he was shocked by the developments, but he and his family were unscathed.

About 600 people, including more than 100 children, have been living in the church since October 30 after they were forcibly removed from a sit-in protest at the nearby Waldorf Arcade. They had hoped to be relocated to a country other than their countries of origin, saying they were at risk in South Africa.

Three people were arrested on Sunday night for the possession of dangerous weapons after they became embroiled in an altercation, according to Western Cape police spokesperson Colonel Andre Traut.

They are due to appear in court soon.

Sitting in a room crowded with people and bags in a makeshift office next to the choral balcony, Balous said he had tried to build people up and teach them leadership.

"What happened last night, it was a kind of misconception and a misunderstanding."

He said he had noticed there were linguistic and country cliques forming among the refugees, with discrimination against people who speak kiSwahili, and derogatory names being used for some nationalities, by some of the refugees.

He also heard the church was being referred to as a "base" by some former soldiers who had fled their countries and some people were addressing each other by their rank, adding the apparent militarisation had unsettled him.

"This is what caused me to run away from my country," said Balous who said he is from Democratic Republic of Congo.

He added there were up to 14 nationalities who had to interact in the church.

While he spoke, small children dozed off under a table, women could be seen lying in a row on the ground sleeping, and luggage was piled high on a table almost up to the ceiling.

In the pews and the church's aisles, people either packed in or sat listlessly. Toddlers walked around in nappies, and older children appeared to be too hot to be as playful as they had been in previous weeks.

The group has been camping there in the hopes of getting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to send them to another host country because they feel they are at risk in South Africa because they are foreigners.

On Monday, women and men started taking their bulging bags out of the church and settling on the cobblestones of Greenmarket Square where the traders had abandoned business for the day.

Turned over cooking utensils, baskets of pegs and piles of blankets, clothes and rubbish filled the edge of the outside of the church.

Make-shift tents were being strung up along the pavement.

Angry retorts flew through the air, and a woman brandished a steak knife as she complained that her cooking pots had been knocked over.

A group of men rounded on her and alleged she had been using communal food money to run her own business instead of cooking for them.

The SA Red Cross Society arrived in the nick of time with a massive pot of bean stew. People rushed to form a line.

Earlier, Sukami had pleaded with aid organisations and the Department of Home Affairs to return to help them out of the stalemate.

After a ceremonial tasting of the food, with claims by people on the sidelines that this was to check for poison, Sukami handed punnets of food out while men formed a human chain to hold the crowd back and prevent a stampede.

As the food was distributed, calm settled over the group again, but police and Cape Town's law enforcement officers remained to monitor the situation.

News24

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