If you have been reading these updates since November 6th 2019, you will know that from the beginning it has been communicated to the refugees in the Church that the sanctuary is a “temporary safe place” and that we “offer a moment of calm” in which we hope “people can find one another to talk, listen and negotiate” and that “a way forward would soon be found that would include vacating Central Methodist Mission”.
In one of my sermons, I said that “it takes courage to protest but it also takes courage to negotiate”. Sadly, they have not shown courage to negotiate. I say sadly, because I believe that they have many legitimate grievances yet their singular demand to go to a “third country” is not in any way aligned to their grievances. No one takes this unrealistic demand seriously and therefore one is also tempted to not take the real grievances seriously. To therefore demand that which is at present so clearly unrealistic, does themselves and all other foreign nationals in South Africa a disservice. Many refugee organisations in South Africa have said as much.
Refugees across the country rightly complain that the Department of Home Affairs sometimes grants asylum papers that are only valid for a month or two. It is very difficult to get work if one is only “legal” for such a short period of time. Many also complain about how difficult it is to open a bank account in SA. These are serious grievances that must be addressed, but the leaders of this protest action over the past five months have not negotiated around these grievances at all. Were they to say we are protesting until all the major banks in the country make it easier for foreign nationals to open bank accounts, or were they to say we demand that our asylum papers be valid for a minimum of a year or three, they would have discovered greater solidarity and support in addressing these and other forms of administrative xenophobia. Instead, they chose to alienate and threaten everyone who pointed out to them that their singular demand to be moved to a third country is impossible and that it does not align itself with their grievances. This has not helped their cause in particular, and the cause of refugees in SA in general.
It has been disturbing to witness how people who themselves have been victims of violence have turned against each other in violence, becoming the very thing they hate and adding impetus to the cycle of violence continuing. The split into two factions on the 29th December 2019 gave rise to xenophobia and religious prejudice among themselves. Doing to each other as they have had done to them. This level of brokenness is tragic. One can only weep.
As I write this, I fear my words might contribute to a sense of self-righteousness and provide an excuse for us in the future to not respond with openness and compassion. We must guard against this if we ourselves are not to become what we hate.
On numerous occasions over the past five months, the refugee leadership gave me the assurance that they will vacate the church. They did not honour these commitments. Over the last few weeks I have put up notices (in all the languages of those staying in the church) requesting people to vacate the church. This request is being ignored. From conversations with the leadership of the refugees it is clear to me that they still believe that their demand to go to a third country will be met and that they will not vacate until it is met. It is also clear to me that they have nothing to gain by remaining in the church. They are literally wasting their time. In fact, I believe that due to health and safety reasons they continue to place their lives at greater risk by remaining in the sanctuary. The overcrowding and lack of appropriate ablution facilities, not to mention increased fire risk, makes the sanctuary an unsafe space to be in.
This leaves the church little choice but to go the legal route and seek relief from the courts. The Methodist Church of Southern Africa is in the process of doing so. This itself will take some time and I ask you to hold those involved in this sensitive matter in your heart.
Let me end with a few words about the Coronavirus. Like climate-breakdown the Coronavirus reminds us of the reality of our inter-connectedness with all of life. It has no respect for border posts and cares not about our nationality or any other social construct we like to use to carve up the world-wide-web of life. Our hyper-individualistic cultures live in denial of this reality. To live in denial of reality is self-defeating. The longer we persist the more devastating the defeat will be – as every other persistence in false separation can testify. South African history is a prime example of this.
Individualism cannot solve what individualism has caused. An example of this is people stocking up on hand sanitising products. To only look after oneself is self-defeating because we are all connected. Hoarding (in every form) is ultimately self-defeating. It is generosity, and not selfishness, that will save us. Jesus said this a long time ago: “For whoever would save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will save it”. When Jesus says, “for my sake” we remember that he self-identified as the “least among us”. In other words the Jesus approach is not to hoard sanitiser but rather to share it with as many people as possible especially those who do not have access to these basic resources. And this goes with every form of preventative method of care and health services.
As we avoid hoarding-panic let us also avoid living in spiritual cloud-cuckoo-land by saying that “our faith will protect us” and the “Coronavirus is just like the flu”. This spiritualised denialism is dangerous and disrespectful to the people around us. For the most part we have a fragile health system in this country, and we must do all we can to not unnecessarily burden it.