Pictures of pain and distress

Namhla Tshisela

Namhla Tshisela

A white dome-shaped tent dominates the entrance of the old reception area of Constitution Hill in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

Stooping down to enter the huge tent, one is led to a re-creation of the past in the South African story that will just not go away.

The Johannesburg Fort, now Constitution Hill, served as a military garrison during the Anglo-Boer War, now called the South African War, until after the war when it was turned into a prison.

Its notoriety grew with the degradation of black prisoners. Striking mine workers and political prisoners incarcerated here in dirty, crowded conditions.

The tent is erected outside the reception area on the spot where prisoners were received, fingerprinted and offences and personal details recorded.

Stepping out of the tent one walks on a map of Africa on the floor at the entrance leading to a dark, musty passage.

More pictures adorn the walls of the passage, some hung on strings with clothes pegs. The drawings in wax crayons look as if they were done by children.

"Most of them were actually done by adults," Michelle Atlas, project manager at the Art Therapy Centre, points out.

One drawing shows the figure of a woman running from another figure pointing a huge rifle.

"It was drawn by a woman at the shelter who used to sell fruit and vegetables where she lived," Atlas says. "She recalled how assailants put a gun to her head and raped her daughter."

She was one of more than 800 immigrants housed in a temporary shelter in Boksburg, Ekurhuleni, for people displaced by xenophobic violence in May.

An estimated 20000 immigrants were displaced and 62 killed when violence aimed at foreign nationals erupted in townships and informal settlements.

Atlas and a team of counsellors from the Art Therapy Centre (ACT) gave victims of xenophobia attacks paper, paint, fabric and crayons to give them "space to express themselves" and to process their grief.

"We were dealing with highly traumatised people," Atlas says. "There was a need to allow them to tell their stories.

"Without the opportunity to express themselves such negative experiences can fester into destructive behaviour, learning disabilities and emotional disorders."

The ATC was formed in 1993 to work with survivors of political violence on the East Rand.

"Counselling the refugees was overwhelming because we could not give them the houses and IDs they pined for," said counsellor Ntombi Sangweni. "We could only listen and create a safe space for them and build their trust."