Church now a haven for criminals
THE Central Methodist Church in central Johannesburg, refuge for hundreds of homeless foreigners, has also become a safe haven for opportunistic criminals.
Bishop Paul Verryn, who oversees the church, concedes he has a problem on his hands.
Sowetan was guided around hidden corners of the church by a man who identified himself as Gideon.
Walking along corridors to the basement he warned us to watch out for a group we passed. He identified them as cellphone thieves.
"Many people have fallen victim to these gangsters but are too scared to tell Verryn," Gideon said.
"These gangsters engage in criminal activities outside and then come here to hide. No one challenges them because everyone is too afraid."
The dark nooks and crannies of the cavernous church are such that even by day I would have felt unsafe without Gideon.
He said the gangsters we passed were called the Sowetans. They spent most of their days hanging around the stairs at the back of the church, out of visitors' sight.
Residents said the Sowetans seldom bothered them in the church and conducted most of their activities outside. Some of the gangsters are South Africans.
Verryn said he knew about the gang and had on several occasions tried to rid the church of the criminals.
"The police arrest them but we find them in the building again," Verryn said. "I don't understand it."
He said he had an agreement with the police to patrol the church at least once a week because criminals used it as a safe haven.
"Criminals are not welcome in the building," Verryn said. "Once there were people charged with rape in the church and the police opposed bail because of this problem."
Talk Radio 702 reported yesterday that one resident had recently been stabbed in the chest and similar incidents occurred frequently. It is clear criminals find rich pickings among the defenceless, homeless migrants and refugees at the church.
"Things are clearly not getting better in Zimbabwe," Verryn said.