The spread of xenophobic violence across South Africa, and the intersection of inequality, social exclusion and public policy failures in immigration and responses to the needs of refugees poses a host of new challenges for institutions’ transformation agendas. The following notes are an abbreviated report of UCT’s “first response” to the crisis in Cape Town – a long and difficult week starting on Friday 23 May…..

In essence, UCT’s immediate focus was on three areas of support:  providing supplies, assisting with support for refugees at holding sites, and providing health support. 

By late Friday evening, it was apparent that the most valuable immediate assistance that UCT could give was to help other organizations with transport from collection points to refugee centres.  UCT availed the Jammie Shuttle fleet as of Friday, 23 May and we worked in partnership with SAPS Rondebosch and Superintendent Hubbard.  Overnight and on the morning of Saturday, we transported about 500 people from Rondebosch, the Cape Town CBD and the Claremont CBD to temporary places of safety made available by churches, mosques and other organizations and we have busses on standby and available at Rondebosch police station. 

The refugees were transported from Rondebosch to the various shelters in Jammie Shuttles through Friday night, first until 10:00pm when the doors at the Rondebosch church had to be closed and then through the night lfor other refugees who also came to the Rondebosch police station, since word spread quickly that this was a place of safety.

We continued to provide transport through Saturday and into Saturday evening, and again on Sunday until midday, when the busses were stood down to give drivers a break and to prepare for resuming the full scheduled weekday service at 6.00am on the Monday morning (essential for examination support).  By the time the busses stood down we had transported about 2000 people to places of safety.  We undertook to resume emergency transport assistance if requested by Rondebosch SAPS.

From early Friday evening and well into the night and over the weekend, UCT Communications coordinated liaison with SAPS and a number of other organizations.  Because families had become separated and were in different temporary refuges, there was a need to help track down where people are currently housed.  UCT Communications  had a team of student volunteers on standby to get out to the refugee centres and help with this if asked to.

We had identified several emergency holding sites on our campus in case the capacity of civil society organizations which were at the forefront of the response was exceeded, and had 200 mattresses ready.  Because of examinations and the fact that UCT venue capacity is stretched, we held back on supplying holding sites – we were rather able to work with other organizations and help with transport.

We were able to provide 200 mattresses from the residence system to the United Church in Belmont Road – these and other intermediate holding points were stretched for mattresses, blankets and food.

SHAWCO (UCT’s Student Health and Welfare organization) is organizing the collection of clothing, blankets, food and material assistance from the university community. 

SHAWCO worked with the Treatment Action Campaign, Department of Home Affairs, the City of Cape Town, Civil Society Coalition Against Violence and Crime, Students Society for Law and Social Justice, the Sonke Gender Justice Network, the Aids Law Project and the Treatment Action Campaign, with the urgent task of registering those who were being moved to the four major refugee centres in the city.  

SHAWCO volunteers worked through much of Sunday with the AIDS Law Project and other organizations to complete a rapid assessment of health needs across 33 centres in the Greater Cape Town area.  They were able to collect information on 8 969 people through the day, but reported that there were many others whose needs still had to be assessed.

On Monday, 26 May, the City of Cape Town’s Health section and Provincial Health Department met, along with other partner organizations including UCT Health Sciences and SHAWCO Health, and developed a combined plan that opposes consolidation in large camps and seeks to provide health support for those affected as close as possible to where they live, to assist re-integration into the community.  We continue to work closely with both City Health and Provincial Health.

By Wednesday, 28 May, Civil Society organisations (headed up by ARASA for purposes of efficiency) were asked to let the City Health and Provincial Health Department teams know what they can offer in terms of health response.  Civil society organizations, including SHAWCO, in turn, asked them for broad categories so that they would have an idea of what sort of things would be helpful to offer. Their response was:  

a) Doctors, nurses, counsellors and clerks willing to do sessions on rosters at the health posts at the 4 centralised sites (i.e. refugee camps);

b) Nurses, health educators to do sessions on rosters as part of the "sub-district health teams", doing daily visits to all other smaller sites (e.g. churches, mosques, community centres);

c) General, basic medical supplies to replenish first aid kits (e.g. bandages, paracetamol, disinfectant).

SHAWCO Health also met with SHAWCO drivers and has offered the use of their mobile clinic, as well as students to operate the clinic, on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings (around 18h00-22h30) and on Saturday morning (09h00-14h30). SHAWCO has since also had contact with the Department of Family Medicine who might be able to offer some of their post-grad students as supervisors, as well as some students at GSB who happen also to be qualified doctors, possibly offering a whole "package" sooner than anticipated.

 A letter was also sent to all health students to let them know all the various ways in which they can help, including volunteering in SHAWCO Health's clinics. Volunteer forms would also be distributed and then returned to the Undergraduate office and to SHAWCO Head Office where a database of volunteers will be built for the SHAWCO clinics.

This issue of refugee location – whether dispersed sites or four camps – also impinges on our third area of focus, health provision, because of the need to set up temporary pharmacies, clinics and other infrastructure.  This is an urgent issue, because an outbreak of diarrhea in one of the larger temporary sites had been reported.  A planning meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, 27 May, coordinated by Provincial Health Department. UCT was represented by SHAWCO Health and others, working closely with our Faculty of Health Sciences, TAC and other partners.

In preparation for this, the Dean of the Health Sciences Faculty called a meeting on Sunday afternoon with the class representatives for the various years in the MBChB programme and also the Rehab Sciences and the Health Sciences Students Council.  The class representatives would use the Faculty's SMS data base to build up a contact network of students with clinical experience who can be deployed to the refugee holding sites in support of SHAWCO Health, and as part of the Provincial Health overall plan which would be outlined later in the week.

Human Rights

At approximately 2:00pm on Friday 23 May, a large group of refugees (approximately 200) came to our Law Clinic offices having fled these violent attacks seeking our assistance.  The Law Clinic realised that it would be impossible to provide them with a legal assistance because they were severely traumatized, and instead as the situation demanded they provided an emergency assistance.  The Law Clinic also realised that it was not a task that they could carry out on their own. With the assistance of the Rondebosch police, initially at the Police Station and later at Rondebosch United Congregation church, they managed to place 1057 refugees in shelters in and around Rondebosch.  

By the end of Friday, the Law Clinic had logged all the displaced people that were assisted with the Cape Town Disaster Management team; health care with Medicans Sans Frontier had been organized; and provision was made for the basic needs of the displaced people, including trauma counselling, with members of civil society.  At the same time, the Law Clinic was continuously receiving calls from clients who were afraid to leave their homes because of the violence in their areas – this resulted in many fights with police – with Law Clinic demanding that the refugees be brought to places of safety by police.

On Saturday, all work was consolidated. It was brought to the attention of the Law Clinic that some refugees sheltered at the Youngfield military base were denied freedom of movement and virtually held prisoner at the base.  The team immediately set out to inform the Commander in charge that it is unconstitutional to deny the refugees rights granted to them in terms of our law.  Refugees from the base were allowed to leave the base if they so wish and would not be forced to remain there.  

The UCT Law Clinic continued coordinating and leading refugee support.  However, a problem emerged and they held back on support until it was resolved.  Refugees were dispersed across more than 30 sites and the City of Cape Town announced that it wished to move them to four camps.  There was disagreement about the amount – and type – of information that should be collected from displaced people in these four camps, both in terms of UN conventions and constitutional rights, and also because refugees fear that they may be forcibly repatriated if they move to the camps.  There was also apparently disagreement between the City and the Department of Home Affairs.  The UCT Law Clinic would advise when this had been resolved. 

On Monday, the UCT Law Clinic continued to provide direct assistance to refugees who visited their offices on campus, and also facilitated meetings with the representative of the UN High Commission for Refugees, Mr. Gupta, who had arrived in Cape Town. On this day, the UCT Law Clinic saw about 500 people at their offices on Middle Campus. The Law Clinic – and the Law Faculty – remained concerned about protocols for collecting information and were opposed to the data forms currently being used by Cape Town Disaster Management.  Assurances were sought on the moratorium on prosecution and deportation while meetings continued with the UNHCR.  The Cape Bar Association – through the intervention of members of the UCT Council and others –assembled a list of its members prepared to act pro bono for refugees referred to them by the UCT Law Clinic.

We benefitted from a comprehensive briefing on Tuesday, 27 May from Mr. Arvin Gupta, Senior Protection Officer for the UN High Commission for Refugees, who has been working closely with the UCT Law Clinic.  Mr. Gupta had had the opportunity of visiting a number of holding sites, meeting with provincial and city officials (including the Mayor) and meeting with leaders of refugee communities.  He was concerned about the apparent lack of common purpose on the part of local and provincial government and, in particular, about the current registration process at the "camps" where information is being collected in apparent contravention of legal authority.  This issue is being actively pursued by the UCT Law Clinic with the assistance of the Cape Bar Association. There is a clear need to protect the rights of refugees and displaced foreign nationals in terms of the immigration legislation and the Refugees Act of 1998 which, among other provisions, entitles a refugee to an appropriate identity document, full legal protection and the right to stay in South Africa.

Following discussion at Monday's Crisis Response Task Team meeting and subsequent suggestions, the task team decided to mark solidarity with the victims of xenophobia and violence with a white ribbon, which members of the UCT community will be asked to wear on their wrists.  We will invite all students graduating on June 13th (as well as others at the ceremony) to wear the ribbon.  This will be particularly appropriate because many of our graduates will be foreign nationals and will be welcomed at the ceremony as life members of UCT Convocation.  SHAWCO will be helping organizing this. 


Now that we have a continuing and focused engagement with the current crisis through the work of SHAWCO, SHAWCO Health and the Health Sciences Faculty, and the UCT Law Clinic and the Law Faculty, we will be moving beyond our "first response" and looking to the urgent and continuing issues of helping with understanding causes and pushing for effective public policy and more appropriate state responses to human rights issues.