John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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The Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg

by John Campbell
March 29, 2012

Zimbabwean refugees are silhouetted in the windows of the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, March 4, 2010. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Courtesy Reuters)


When a measure of economic stability returned to Zimbabwe, South Africa dismantled its special treatment regimes for refugees from that country. It now requires entry permits, work permits, and imposes other requirements which, according to a human rights NGO, are consistent with international practice. However, xenophobia remains in job-starved South Africa, and the under-trained and poorly paid police often have been unduly rough with Zimbabweans.

The Central Methodist Mission in downtown Johannesburg has a tradition of social activism dating back to apartheid times. Originally a white congregation, it now is almost entirely black, thoroughly middle class in appearance, though its bishop is white. During the height of the anti-Zimbabwean xenophobia, it began providing a place for refugees and migrants to sleep. It provides no food or bedding, but does facilitate entry into a primary school. My interlocutor said that the facility is unsafe, because there is no control over entrance into the church. Apparently, criminals prey on the the residents.

Our intern, Melissa Bukuru, discussed the shelter and other immigrant spaces in a blog about intra-continental immigration earlier this year, after she returned from Johannesburg. My research associate, Asch Harwood, and I also visited the Central Methodist Mission over the past weekend. Our guide told us that more than a thousand people sleep in the Sunday school rooms, corridors, and along the steps. Even mid-afternoon the overcrowding was oppressive. Only a few residents had small, curtained-off areas. Everybody else slept where they could. Children were everywhere, and daily activities were underway: cooking, laundry, etc. Our guide told us that one toilet served five hundred people. To me, conditions were squalid, and the facility was a firetrap. But, residents have no other place to go. There are periodic police raids in search of illegal aliens (probably a large percentage of the residents), but, thus far, the bishop has managed to get them to back off.

I was told that the congregation is split over hosting the Zimbabweans (and others). Probably the majority want their facility back. But the bishop is adamant and so far has carried the day.

The Central Methodist Mission is stark testimony to the mayhem that disfigured Zimbabwe in the past and may do so again. It also illustrates the very high cost to South Africa of the Mugabe regime.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Maduka

    Thanks for the very moving description of the plight of Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa.

    However, it also points to a growing problem, a problem that could mar the relationship between South Africa and other Sub-Saharan African nations in the future.

    South Africa is fast acquiring a reputation for being unwelcoming and xenophobic. Given the state of the South African economic and growing unemployment among young South Africans, it is understandable. Having said that, a more assertive and rapidly growing Sub-Saharan Africa may make South Africa pay dearly in the future.

    The recent diplomatic spat between South Africa and Nigeria is being brushed off as insignificant. It isn’t. There is a growing mutual dislike (even loathing) between South Africans and other Sub-Saharan Africans. A more democratic Africa will mean that this mutual loathing will be milked for political purposes (the deportation of Nigerians was very popular with South Africans, while the deportation South Africans from Nigeria was EXTREMELY POPULAR with the Nigerian public).

    We need to carefully consider all this.

  • Posted by John P. Causey, IV

    Maduka, I share your concern that SA is developing the reputation as being, at best, inhospitable to other Sub-Saharan countries. However, I’m optimistic because I think the citizens understand that they are not going down a fruitful path vis-a-vis it’s recent history of xenophobia. I base this observation in part on experiences in townships today. Several people in 2 separate township were quick to point out that the foreigners living in the townships were well looked after, and were able to maintain vibrant businesses. What I saw confirmed the statements.

    Other, non-anecdotal evidence, can be found by observing the Somalis. In many cases they are dominating the SA spaza shop owners. The Somalis are able to operate relatively freely despite crowding out other, local owners. Several research papers have been written on the Somalis arrival, and how they are winning the marketplace battles against the South Africans.

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