South Africa

The South African Red Cross Society Urban Violence Relief Operation - 2008 Report


Innocence Lost

'An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind' -Mahatma Gandhi

Sunday 11 May 2008 dawned bright and clear in Alexandra. Few walking along its streets could envisage it would become one of the darkest days in South Africa's recent history. South Africa is seen as the economic powerhouse of Southern Africa. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants are attracted by the hope of employment, political stability and education for their children. Many end up in informal settlements where some local residents, also desperate for work and housing, have viewed them with mounting suspicion and resentment. That resentment spilled over into violence on that ill-fated night. A mob bent on driving the foreigners out of their townships left three dead, 40 injured and thousands fleeing for their lives. Over the ensuing weeks, the hostility spread to other provinces, and images of foreign migrants being attacked shocked the world. After more than a month of violence the situation was brought under control, but 62 innocent people had lost their lives, 21 of them South African.

Ubuntu Rising

Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary' - Mahatma Gandhi

Yet in the midst of the chaos and devastation, the spirit of ubuntu was palpable. The scenes of violence were greeted with outrage by South Africans from all walks of life. 'This is not who we are, not what we stand for' was the clear message from the public. Desperate to help, many turned to the South African Red Cross Society (SARCS) to assist with channelling their donations to those in need. SARCS mobilised its volunteers and staff as soon as the crisis started. Recognising that many had fled their homes without so much as a blanket to keep them warm during the cold winter nights, hundreds of SARCS volunteers and staff were on hand at the temporary shelters hastily set up by South African authorities to distribute food, blankets, items for young children and other necessities. But with the violence spreading across Gauteng Province and the country, SARCS realised signifi- cant funding was needed in order to cope with the burgeoning needs of those displaced. On 16 May 2008, a national appeal was launched for R1 million to purchase essential items and assist with relief activities. This appeal was overwhelmingly supported, with individuals and families donating cash and in kind, some walking to Red Cross branches to deliver bags of groceries. Private companies also gave generously, enabling SARCS to assist more than 10,000 people in the first week of the crisis. As the days passed and the attacks continued to drive men, women and children from their homes, SARCS was forced to revise their appeal to R7 million. In true ubuntu spirit, the South African public as well as private enterprise met and exceeded this amount. In total, more than R14 million was received, an amount that would assist not only with the immediate emergency phase, but also with the long-term effects of a displaced population. Funds were used for such wide-ranging activities as first aid, hygiene kits, trauma counselling, family reunification assistance and anti-discrimination campaigns aimed at addressing the root cause of violence. Over the critical first few weeks of the disaster, SARCS deployed 150 staff and volunteers in more than 30 sites and temporary shelters around the country. This well co-ordinated operation was able to alleviate some of the suffering of the close to 40,000 displaced foreigners affected by the violence. Not only were basic necessities taken care of, but the respect and kindness shown to the victims went a long way to healing their emotional wounds. As Françoise Le Goff, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Southern Africa zone, so aptly put it: "These people have the right to live in dignity and with hope." "Ubuntu" is an ancient African word, meaning "humanity to others". Ubuntu also means "I am what I am because of who we all are".