The countdown has begun for the start of an interim interdict that could see the City of Cape Town clamping down on cooking, washing, and sleeping outside the Central Methodist Church on Greenmarket Square.
Jurisdiction for the interdict does not include the refugees and asylum seekers inside of the church, but on Monday outside the church there appeared to be little activity indicating that people were packing up and moving on.
Instead, the number of tents and awnings appeared to have increased since the original occupation at the end of October, with brightly coloured one-person tents popping up on the fringes of Greenmarket Square.
Opposite the church’s main entrance, a mattress was being aired on the seat of one of the delivery scooters used by the refugees who have work. Washed clothes dried on sheets and blankets on the pavement, water bottles were passed around as children were washed, and coals smouldered in small charcoal braziers used for cooking.
Washday outside the Central Methodist Church. (Jenni Evans, News24)
One of those living in a tent, Naomi Bindi, scrubbed the grime off her white faux diamante sliders until they reached a sparkling white again.
Her daughter ran up to enthusiastically spell the family name as her mother swished the scrubbing brush through the foamy water in the basin at her feet.
Many of these day-to-day activities fall under the category of things that are against the City’s by-laws – such as washing clothes in a public place, doing ablutions, hanging laundry, sleeping on a pavement, cooking, erecting a structure, blocking the way.
Bindi explained she and her family must sleep outside because they are from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Claims on the ground state that due to a split between refugee leaders Papy Sukami and JP Balous – territorial lines have been drawn. Outside is for people from the DRC, and inside is apparently the domain of those from Burundi.
Balous and Sukami had a violent leadership fallout at the beginning of the year, and both have also been arrested after criminal charges were laid by other refugees. They must stay out of the CBD according to their bail conditions, unless they have permission.
The looming deadline follows an application brought by the City to enforce its by-laws after threats and resistance by many in the group had made it impossible for officials to work there.
Traders on the square, many of whom are also refugees, complained that the stench of urine, and threats when they tried to move people from entrances, meant their businesses were struggling.
Western Cape High Court Judge Daniel Thulare found in his judgment, on February 17, that Balous and Sukami were deceiving many of the foreign nationals living at the church by encouraging them with a claim that they would be resettled in a new country.
He said they had formed a “shadow opposition party”, they made the protest and sit-in around the church ungovernable and turned the area into a makeshift slum.
Thulare noted that before the group had started their sit-in at Waldorf Arcade, there were police raids in Johannesburg to clamp down on counterfeit goods associated with foreign national criminals, where police had to withdraw to prevent violence.
There were days of violence associated with that attempted law enforcement operation. A taxi driver in Pretoria was also killed when he tried to stop a drug deal, and there was further violence directed at foreign nationals suspected of being in the country illegally, or who were committing crimes.
The Cape Town group was removed by the police from the Waldorf Arcade and took shelter at the Methodist Church on the square.
Entitled to raise points of distress
Thulare commented that being a foreign national in South Africa does not automatically mean they were illegally in South Africa.
He noted that there are people in the group who might not be able to go back to their old homes in South Africa, and felt they were entitled to raise points of distress with officials.
Thulare gave the City seven days to find a place where a refugee reception officer and a refugee status determination officer from the Department of Home Affairs could offer help to anybody from the group who needed it.
On Monday, many in the group were taking up this offer to fill in forms, have their fingerprints taken, and say what they needed.
Nathalie Kiwilo and her husband, Lubanga Luthulu, have set up their “home” behind the law enforcement unit’s mobile office, using part of its tow bar arm as a shelf for their food and condiments.
Kiwilo said going to the Salt River centre was relatively easy for them because they already have refugee and asylum documents.
She has been told to expect a phone call regarding whether she can expect any help from the government and pays R10 to an entrepreneur around the square to keep her phone fully charged for this important phone call.
Earlier, kombis registered to the City had squeezed down the cobbled lane from Greenmarket Square for the journey to Salt River, where the officials are located.
There was some argument over people accused of not being part of the Methodist Church refugee community who were trying their luck to circumvent their document problems.
Law enforcement officials dealt with the complaints and kept the kombis going.
‘People are used to living like this’
As the kombi filled up, there were also lingering suspicions over whether the occupants would come back or be arrested.
Police spokesperson Siyabulela Malo said none of the refugees participating in this process had been arrested.
The interim order does not apply to the inside of the church, where Balous’ wife, Aline Bukuru, holds court.
The pews were emptier than usual, but Bukuru said residents went for a walk to the nearby Company’s Garden. Bags are still stacked high on the pews.
Pointing to people lying on the floor she asked: “Have you ever been to a refugee camp? People are used to living like this. Even if they live in a private flat, they live like this.”
Asked whether the group is still insisting on relocation to a country other than South Africa, she said: “It almost seems impossible until it’s done.”
The City said it would prefer to let the court-ordered process be completed before it commented on the situation.
The executive director for safety and security, Richard Bosman, said: “The court order allows the City to enforce its by-laws once the seven-day verification process is completed.
“As indicated before, the City is committed to resolving the matter as speedily as possible, in line with the court order, and we ask that the public will allow the Department of Home Affairs and the City to give effect to the order.”
The church itself is not insisting that anybody leave, but has asked for reflection on whether the present situation could continue.