Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

Q&A: "We Mustn&#39t Think as South Africans That We Have Won the Day"

Interview with Paul Verryn

JOHANNESBURG, May 4 2008 (IPS) - Bishop Paul Verryn, who directs the Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg, South Africa, has long been on the frontlines of the country&#39s political struggles.

Born in 1952 in the capital city of Pretoria, Verryn came of age during the most contentious days of the fight against apartheid. After completing military training, he entered the ministry, working in the Eastern Cape Province for 11 years.

Verryn&#39s experiences there as the chairman of the Detainees Parents&#39 Support Committee – which sought to aid the thousands of South Africans detained without trial at the time – and the murder of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko while in police custody in August 1977 served as something of a political awakening for the young cleric.

Transferred to the sprawling black settlement of Soweto in Johannesburg in 1987, Verryn has continued to live there until this day.

His criticism of the powerful continued with the advent of democracy in South Africa; many recall his tearful testimony before South Africa&#39s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997 regarding the involvement of Winnie Mandela, former wife of anti-apartheid hero and then South African president Nelson Mandela, in the kidnapping and murder of Stompie Moeketsi. The 14-year-old anti-apartheid activist was seized from Verryn&#39s Soweto mission by Mrs Mandela&#39s bodyguards in 1988, and his battered body later found in a ditch. Winnie Mandela was eventually convicted of involvement in Moeketsi&#39s kidnapping.

Today, as director of the Central Methodist Mission, Verryn has taken up another cause: the plight of immigrants to South Africa from Zimbabwe, a country that has been blighted by political violence and economic degeneration in recent years. Having thrown open the doors of his mission to these new arrivals, he saw the building raided in a controversial police action earlier this year, but has refused stop providing shelter and assistance to the Zimbabweans as they stream southward.

IPS correspondent Michael Deibert sat down with Verryn to hear his thoughts on how the mission was meeting this and other challenges.

IPS: How did the Zimbabwean crisis first make its appearance here at the Central Methodist Mission?

Paul Verryn (PV): The church has always had something of an open door policy, so they have been advocating for the homeless and taking medical stuff and food out on a Wednesday night and providing blankets and doing advocacy, and having support groups and looking at creative ways of finding employment for more than 20 years. And so the natural result ultimately was as the population of Zimbabweans started coming into the country…The streets of Johannesburg are reasonably inclement, and so the doors of the church went open wider. We allowed some to sleep here to start with.

IPS: How has the community here – business, political, religious – reacted to the arrival of these immigrants from Zimbabwe?

PV: Some of the people who have come from Zimbabwe are not to be sniffed at. We have many schoolteachers in this building, we have many professionals. South Africa has a skills shortage and the Zimbabweans come with huge skills and great potential. I think that some astute people have maximised on that. Some charlatans have taken the skill and betrayed the trust. Some people are just vitriolically prejudiced and it&#39s very difficult to try and reason with them.

IPS: Can you describe to me the events that happened in January at the mission?

PV: It must have been about 11-ish, and I actually had people in my study speaking about the fact that the police had been in the building earlier in the day. I was called and told that the police were here and that they were busy with people on the streets. I looked out the windows and people were just scattering in all directions, some of them with their things, some of them with nothing. I should imagine that there were at least 200 to 300 people.

Then the police entered the building and it was a little bit like a blocked bath with the tide lifting the people…(who) were beginning to become panic-stricken. You&#39re dealing with vulnerable people. You&#39re not dealing with people who are robust, but rather with people who have already been through a considerable amount of trauma: some of them have been tortured, some of them are here because they honestly believe that their life spans are going to be shortened and somebody&#39s going to eliminate them, and then a whole lot of people who are traumatised because they&#39ve just got no resources.

I walked down to the second floor and they were busy breaking open the door of the toilet…I asked them why they didn&#39t want a key…I didn&#39t have the key on me; I asked (them) to wait so we could find someone to help us. They weren&#39t interested; they just kept on smashing down the door. They basically gathered all the people in the building in a passageway, and some of those people had been quite seriously assaulted. There was one man who had blood in his mouth who said "Please, let them shoot and kill us rather than continuing to humiliate us and taking us to prison."

We were told they were looking for weapons, ammunition and drugs. I told them that we&#39d assist them, but was this the way to do it? They opened people&#39s bags and stole money, cell phones, money off my desk.

IPS: What may have raised concerns about the mission on the part of the police?

PV: The support for what&#39s going on over here hasn&#39t been unambiguous. But what I perceive is that people in the area think that criminals use this as a kind of hideout. They do a job out there and they rush in here and hide. If that is the case, I would quite willingly welcome the police back and tell them "Check. We&#39ll facilitate the raid for you; we&#39ll facilitate searching. Let&#39s do it and let&#39s do it now."

IPS: Do you think there&#39s any credibility to that suspicion?

PV: Yes, I do, because the church is vulnerable. This place (has)…little passages and hideaways that make it very easy for that kind of activity, I think.

IPS: Do you think there are parallels to be drawn between the actions of the police here and some of the methods used during apartheid, and between the situation in Zimbabwe today and the situation in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s?

PV: Some of the pictures that I have seen on my television coming from Zimbabwe are worse than I ever saw here, but torture is torture. I do sense an alienation of human rights and no sense of concern of that by the authorities, a sort of blanket denial that this is going on…I also think that one senses this huge disparity between the haves and have-nots.

IPS: Why does South Africa&#39s president, Thabo Mbeki, continue with his assertions that there is no crisis in Zimbabwe?

PV: He qualified it. I&#39ve got a feeling that he was saying that there was no crisis in the actual voting system.

I think politicians must have it very difficult. They go from enormous black car to enormous black car to an air-conditioned, salubrious office. It must be very difficult to speak with any authority. If he said there was a crisis, what international implications would that have? What would it oblige the United Nations to do that they haven&#39t done yet?

When you happen to know that in the very city where you live there have been attacks on Zimbabweans…when you know that and you go to a country and you say there is no crisis, what on earth do you think most other Africans are going to think about Zimbabweans – "What are you doing here? Our president&#39s been there for himself and says there&#39s no crisis. Get home." I think it borders on irresponsible. Clearly, it&#39s hugely political.

Vigilance around human rights in both countries, Zimbabwe and South Africa, is critical. We might be able to excuse the bad behaviour of the police because we see it in the light of xenophobia. In actual fact it will begin with Zimbabweans today, it will move to the poor tomorrow, it will be in squatter camps the next day and before we can say anything we will be in an intolerant and very dangerous situation. The voices that speak out against it will become fewer and fewer.

We mustn&#39t think as South Africans that we have won the day. I don&#39t think we have. I think we&#39re very, very precarious.

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