Rainbow Nation is not dead

Joel Avni

Joel Avni

South Africans are extraordinarily warm people, united in the face of adversity across racial, religious and class lines by a spirit of ubuntu, says a Zimbabwean who a month ago fled his home under police guard as a mob bayed for his blood.

"It's just that a few criminal rotten potatoes spoilt the whole bag," says Joseph Njala.

The observation might say more about Njala than about his hosts. He refuses to dwell on the adversity he and fellow foreigners suffered in the recent xenophobic madness. Instead, Njala marvels at the spontaneous outpouring of support from ordinary South Africans that he says defined the aftermath.

He paints a picture of countless decent citizens united in their embarrassment over the mayhem. They appear spontaneously at refuges for displaced foreigners determined to defend their victimised brethren and ease their plight.

Surprisingly for a man who but a few weeks ago had to flee his modest shack under police guard from a mob rampaging through the Makausi informal settlement in Germiston, Njala describes a Rainbow Nation that cynical South Africans have long despaired of realising.

The 30-year-old panelbeater abandoned Zimbabwe with his wife just before the elections in January. They left their children and parents in Harare, promising to support them from greener pastures.

At the border he met a compatriot who offered him a place to stay in Makausi until he found his feet in the new country.

All went well. Njala found a job within two days, rented a shack from a South African and sent regular consignments of groceries to his starving family.

Then things changed overnight. A month ago his wife phoned him at work. Strangers had appeared at his shack warning all migrants to leave or face the consequences once darkness fell. Terrified, she fled to friends in Johannesburg. By the time Njala arrived home, phalanxes of armed police were lined up, guns blazing, in an imperfect bid to separate the straggling foreigners from the marauding mob.

Bloodied neighbours were snatching a few meagre possessions before being escorted to Germiston police station, which they found overflowing with terrified migrants from Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

He was in the first group of six assigned to camp out at Germiston City Hall. Officials of the relief organisations that catered for the 3000 souls say Njala's leadership helped transform Germiston City Hall into one of the model refuges countrywide.

He has a more modest view of his role: "I was one of the few people who could speak English and was able to communicate with the caregivers and my fellow displaced people."

But by all accounts he and his multinational team of 40 volunteers sweated around the clock to keep the operation shipshape and a model of grassroots democracy. Then three weeks later they were moved to the provincial camp at Rand Airport. Mutterings of discontent soon set in and within a week a disaffected older countryman, upset by the status the young man had earned among his peers, stabbed Njala over a plate of food. He escaped serious injury, but was whisked away to a place of safety. True to form, he dismisses the incident.

"He was more than likely drunk. I'm willing to forgive and forget."

"Forgive and forget" is a recurring theme in Njala's tale.

But he would rather discuss the relief effort, especially the 3000 mattresses delivered to the camp last week without noting the role he played in their acquisition.

That is filled in by organisers of the relief effort.

Slowly we return to discussing the aftermath of the xenophobic madness. What does the future hold for these poor migrants?

"In the squatter camp we lived as one family, as brothers and sisters drinking from one bottle of beer.

"People are frightened and confused. Many feel betrayed by the people they lived with for up to 14 years. We have all heard the rumours about one fellow who returned to Ramaphosa [on the East Rand] and was killed."

Feelings vary widely, but he knows that life is like a ball - what goes around comes around.

Njala started a new job last week and will soon again be sending groceries to his hungry children and ageing parents.