A few months ago, they never thought they’d be diminished to a population forced to live like animals. But the Congolese community, surviving peacefully, productively and prosperously among their native South African neighbors, felt the tension building in their bones – there was a storm brewing. And according to many native South Africans, they were due for devastation. Why should they, as an educated foreign people who have fled from a country where the fear of death from a malicious government hinders a life of prosperity, be taking the jobs of the less-qualified natives? After all, the South African government has made promises to its people; not the “makwerekwere,” or those who’ve invaded the country, plundering its wealth and marrying its women.
And if the government, with its loose border policies and false prophecies, wasn’t going to do something about the emigration and unemployment problems plaguing angry South Africans, it was up to natives to take their land back. So, last month, that’s just what they did — by force. Now, the classrooms, car dealerships, doctors’ offices and law firms the Congolese once occupied in Joburg are but a recent memory. They’ve been reduced to a life halted by a state of stagnancy and are now more concerned about a cold front than their next exam or meeting with a client.
The majority of the displaced Congolese population of Johannesburg now lives at Riffle Range Road refugee camp. RRR is the largest camp out of seven in Joburg, and the Congolese are its biggest nationality of inhabitants. When I first visited the camp last week, inquisitive stares and weary eyes followed me everywhere I went. And I have to admit, I was quite intimidated — I had my guard up to prove it. But after a while, I noticed a simple hello meant a lot to these people. They’d been through a lot of trauma and had every right to be fearful of new faces.
I’d soon be welcomed into the Congolese community. With their robust Congo-French accents, they prodded me about my intentions as a journalist. I’d fire back with my questions, and eventually we opened up to each other. Our nervous walls went tumbling down. And after a few visits, I had become more than just another apathetic reporter to them – I was a confidant, a friend.
I’d also become quite close with Buks Burger, the burly Afrikaner camp manager. We’d speak candidly about the camp and he’d answer my strange questions freely – some more odd than others. Last night was a shining example of the most queer of queries, even for Buks. I asked him if I could stay overnight at his camp, in a tent, side-by-side with the ‘fugees. He was definitely caught of guard, but hesitantly granted my wish. And at 8 p.m. on Friday night, my Wits University colleague, Judy Lelliot, and I were among the first journalists to bear the camp’s frigid, midnight air.
As we meandered through the camp to the northeast corner, we were quickly greeted by our new friends. The doctor was the first to greet us. He was Pastor Raphaël’s right hand man, and was actually a board-certified physician. When the doctor led us to the pastor’s tent-bound, 14×8-foot chambers, Raphaël’s wide smile and warm, wavering eyes let us know we were welcomed. The pastor is a reckoning figure within the Congolese community, so we felt safe. However, he had his concerns. We stumbled through our best impression of each other’s language hybrid – coined Franglish – and I soon found out that four Congolese men were assaulted just a couple of hours earlier outside of the camp’s gates. They were on their way to get some supplies from a nearby gas station when they were met by an angry South African mob intent on committing a hate crime, xenophobia-style. The men were clubbed, but escaped without serious injury. Police never responded to their calls of distress.
But the mood quickly lightened up, as the community realized there was nothing further that could be done. We congregated around one of the many fire pits that illuminated the dark, dirt alleys of the camp. We passed my camera around and enjoyed taking turns photographing each other. We talked about the media and the coverage — or lack-thereof — they were giving the camps. After about an hour of conversation, Judy and I drifted around the camp, escorted by Jean the Baptist, a family man standing at about 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. We were in good hands with the friendly giant. We’d squat in on a couple more fireside chats before Pastor Raphaël let us know he’d set up a place for us to sleep in his tent.
Ducking into the tight confines, I noticed we were not alone. We’d be bunking with six others. I tried not to act surprised or seem ungrateful, as the pastor had gone out of his way to clean up his tent and sacrifice his thin mat for us to lay on.
Judy and I curled up, cocooned in fetal positions underneath the warmth of three blankets and tightly zipped hoodies. But we’d soon find out that wasn’t enough. As I shivered myself to sleep to the harmonious sounds and matured smells that only a biodome full of grown men could produce, I couldn’t stop thinking about the children at the camp. How on Earth could they possibly survive extended periods of exposure to these conditions? I couldn’t come to a reassuring conclusion. The notion haunted me in my dreams.
I awoke to a beautiful sound. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but it was much more pleasant than the ones I fell asleep to. It pulled me out of bed. My shoes crunched across the frost-laden dirt paths as I followed my ears. They led me to a congregation of Congolese singing Biblical hymns in their native language. They formed a large circle around their 5-foot-3 pastor. They traveled between song and prayer as they asked God to forgive their enemies, while giving them the strength to do the same. Just as Moses once led the Israelis through persecution in Egypt, they too will find an answer to their oppressive state – they’re sure of it.