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By unknown | Jun 02, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

If there's any one person who should be the face of the Not In My Name campaign, it is Paul Verryn.

But then, again, the stocky man of the cloth, a bishop of the Methodist Church, is not one for ostentatious displays.

That is the forte of celebrities and other charlatans, who'd want the world to think this universal moral stand - this time against the xenophobic attacks that have hogged the news bulletins for almost a month now - is their brainchild.

Verryn has, in biblical notions, fed the hungry and visited the sick long before it became fashionable to do so.

The Methodist Church building at the corner of Pritchard and Smal streets in the Johannesburg city centre, thanks to Verryn - and often at great risk to his reputation - has been the home of displaced people for donkey's years.

In the 1980s, at the height of the sociopolitical ogre known as the Mandela United Football Club, a bunch of hooligans who'd done anything but kick a soccer ball, Verryn was already sheltering the homeless.

Twenty years later, the pews of the church are occupied by sleeping bodies - men, women and children, fleeing the madness back home and now the xenophobia here; someone had decided illegal African immigrants were a burden on the local economy and a threat to locals' jobs.

Some have unashamedly gone so far as to suggest the men from north of our borders take their women!

As the negrophobia drives the darker hued brothers and sisters to run for dear life, like prey in the wild hoping to escape the clutches of a predator, Verryn threw the church doors open - and not every parishioner is chuffed.

We observe him from the safety of the bar area at the Cedar Park Conference Centre, Woodmead way, where the national executive committee of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) sits huddled in an emergency meeting.

Top of the agenda is the scourge of xenophobia and, true to form, the clergy gathered here would descend on Alexandra the next day.

Verryn sat as if he couldn't wait for the meeting to end. In the two hours it took the holy men - only two of the 13 are women - to conclude their business, Verryn would be the only one to stand up and take a call on his cellphone.

As the meeting dragged into the twilight of its second hour, he was sitting farther back from the table, scrolling his phone.

Even when laughter erupted around the table, he looked as if he were the only one who didn't catch the joke.

The minute the last word was spoken he was the first to stand up, leaving the other church leaders - all dressed in mufti - to wind up their business without him.

"Can we do the interview at my office," he asks hurriedly. "There's someone already waiting for me there."

Off we go but tailing his Honda Ballade would prove a tad difficult as it niftily ducked through other traffic on the freeway, teasing the speed cameras as it headed south to town.

The church resembles a bomb scene. The glass on the main door is badly cracked, as if someone had tried to drive a vehicle into it and failed.

As the cowering foreign nationals mill about, some have taken advantage of the situation to set up little food stalls on the grounds of the expansive church building.

Further into the belly of the church one shrewd soul sells a loaf of bread, with a sizeable number of slices missing.

"R5," he says curtly.

Passage through to the bishop's third-floor office is by scary route - the unlit stairs. Even the most careful walker is bound to step on bodies wrapped in blankets, bedding in every nook and cranny large enough to offer the chance of sleep.

Everyone who's awake seems to have something urgent to say, speaking at the top of their voices in a myriad African languages that would make the United Nations sound homogenous.

Access to the office of Verryn, who has already arrived, is guarded - by a man who doesn't speak any South African language.

Fights break out, Verryn would later explain, so there's a huge need for security personnel.

A woman nursing her baby on one of the couches begs a countryman for an apple. The man says it is his only one and he doesn't want to part with it. The woman, clearly famished, can only look on - too weak to plead her case further.

There are orange peels, crusts of what could easily have been cheap biscuits and an assortment of litter lying everywhere on the floors.

Are you Mother Theresa in drag?

"If you look at the scriptures," he begins, "any scriptures - Islamic, Jewish, Christian ... you can't read them without having a clear understanding that you can't say you have God and still be indifferent to your neighbour.

"The church talks a lot about taking care of the poor."

All he's doing is merely following the teachings of his faith, he says.

Between 1500 and 2000 people are at present housed in the church, escaping the xenophobia that has claimed the lives of more than 50 people so far.

"I've worked with displaced people since 1985," Verryn says, "that's what a church should do."

Chapter Four of Katiza's Journey, a book by Fred Bridgland, tells the story of how Katiza Cebekhulu was "planted" at the self-same church so he could get into Verryn's bed at the Soweto shelter that was run by the Methodist priest.

The manse would become the scene of many homosexual claims against the unmarried Verryn, chief of which came from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Cebekhulu himself would later refute those claims, alleging he was told to cry wolf by the "Mother of the Nation", who was said to be out to get Verryn at the time.

The "rape victim" would later testify that Madikizela-Mandela was merely envious of the growing success of Verryn's project.

"I think Mrs Mandela wanted to destroy Paul because she was jealous," Bridgland quotes Katiza saying in the book.

"He was very popular and was attracting more and more finance, particularly from Europe and through the radical SACC," says another passage from the book.

He still does. Just last week he received a hefty $125000 from foreign donors and this "is helping towards water and electricity payments and has generally helped a great deal in keeping the wolf from the door".

His office is a mess of supplies - blankets and food parcels vie for space with his own mountain of paper work.

A book on Robert Mugabe by Heidi Holland sits aloft a pile of papers - the very man whose policies have seen three million Zimbabweans jump the border into South Africa.

The majority of those huddling at the church are Zimbabweans. Fact.

The interview does not happen without disruption. His cellphone rings endlessly.

I'll give you five bags of mealie meal," he says to one caller.

"Yeah, we have spare blankets," he says to another, "come get some."

He has a good speaking voice, the kind that would make for a good sermon. But as bishop, now, he doesn't get to preach too often.

He'd get to sleep at about four in the morning, he says of his typical day.

A young man leaves his office and Verryn promises to bring him a home remedy for his mouth ulcers the next day.

His space is cramped by many young men. He's unmarried, he concurs, without children. "But I have a large family of children."

Born in Pretoria 56 years ago, Verryn has been in the church for 35 years.

Young men have shared his bedroom in Soweto where he's lived for 20 years. The homosexual claims did not stick, that's why he's still in the central committee of the Methodist Church.

But even if he were gay, it doesn't matter much which team he bats for because in Paul Thandabantu Verryn, xenophobia has found its match.


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