Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

South Africa: Zimbabweans Evicted from Church Refuge

Congregants claimed church used as refugee camp in which alcoholism, prostitution and violence flourished.
By Ntando Ncube
As Zimbabwean refugees poured daily across the border into South Africa from the political and economic crises crippling their country, the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg became a major place of refuge.

Paul Verryn, the Methodist Bishop of Johannesburg, opened the doors of his church to give shelter to more than 800 homeless Zimbabweans, arguing, “These people are our brothers and sisters. We can’t leave them on the streets. They are also human and we will help them.

“[As Christians], we pray for the poor. Therefore we should not chase them away when they need our help ... It’s an opportunity for us to open our hearts and knuckle down and be what we say we are.”

But many congregants at the church, in the centre of Johannesburg’s business district, have complained that Verryn has taken Christian charity too far. Their complaints about the use of the church as a refugee camp in which alcoholism, prostitution and violence flourished led to the eviction just before Christmas of the Zimbabweans, most of whom are now living on the streets of the inner city.

“The church could not continue taking care of people who spoil the holy place of God,” said one of the church elders whose committee overruled the bishop’s arguments that they as Christians had a duty to provide shelter to the needy.

In the days before the evictions took place, I spent a night in the church and observed that it was overcrowded and that serious problems were arising. The toilet in the bathroom had become blocked and the premises smelt foul. This caused problems for Verryn’s South African congregants, who arrived early in the morning to leave their children at a church pre-school nursery and to find conditions steadily deteriorating.

Verryn, a white Afrikaner who in the apartheid era opened his Soweto manse to political activists fleeing the police, has not had the complete support of his junior pastors either. One told IWPR that he was offended to find the refugees singing anti-Zimbabwean government anthems in the church and living in squalor.

“Our church has become a slum, a pigsty,” said the pastor. “This is a disgrace and we are very angry. People are having sex in the church and women are falling pregnant and delivering their babies in the church. What kind of a church is that? How can we worship God in such a dirty place?”

The Central Methodist Church saga has been headline news in South Africa for more than a year, underlining, on the one hand, the predicament of people fleeing from the authoritarianism of the country’s northern neighbour, and, on the other, the growing intolerance and xenophobia among ordinary South Africans towards the flood of humanity from across the border.

Verryn declined to move out of Soweto, where he was parish minister, when he was promoted to bishop in 1997. Verryn, who lives humbly and preaches the need for Christians to be judged by their deeds, came to worldwide notice in 1988 when he gave shelter to the child political activist Stompie Moeketsi.

When Verryn began accommodating the Zimbabweans, women and children slept in the church sanctuary while men slept head-to-toe under blankets in meeting rooms above. Verryn recalled a mother, father and child who had fled Zimbabwe after attending a rally organised by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, leaving behind a seven-year-old son who had been beaten up by supporters of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. “I won’t tell you the rest of her [the mother’s] story because it is too horrendous for words,” said Verryn. “But they certainly left Zimbabwe in great fear for their lives.”

The bishop said some of the people he had sheltered in the church were accountants, teachers and nurses, even one doctor.

Opposition to Verryn’s open door policy towards the refugees began last March when members of the congregation approached The Sowetan, a mass circulation daily newspaper, and accused the refugees of vandalising the church. They also said there had been two murders there.

Verryn had a torrid time at a meeting at which congregants demanded that the church cease to be a refugee retreat. While Verryn argued that it would be a negation of Christianity to expel the refugees on to the streets, his opponents said the church had become a haven for criminals and that regular worshippers were afraid to attend services. “I was nearly raped in the lift by these people and they are molesting small girls in the church,” said one woman.

It was agreed to form a committee to resolve the issue, but in the meantime newspaper coverage of the dispute grew more lurid.

“Murder in the cathedral has taken on a new meaning for the once fashionable Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg,” said Johannesburg’s main daily newspaper, The Star, which obtained an account of the killings that had taken place in the church. In one case, Andrew Khumalo protested when fellow refugees grabbed some second-hand donated clothes from him. In the subsequent fight, he was stabbed several times and left to bleed to death on the floor of the church. Another man also died in the fight.

Verryn said that tension in the wake of the murders was “awful”. He said the police who came to investigate were drunk, slow and incompetent. Admitting that the church was becoming increasingly squalid, he said, “I’ve spent more time talking about toilets than talking about poverty of the refugees.”

Still the bishop argued that the majority of Zimbabweans who came knocking on the church door were deserving of Christian goodwill. He said his motivation stemmed from his faith and belief in humanity. He spoke of a woman in her sixties who had fled from Harare, the Zimbabwe capital. “All of her children have died and she has to take care of her grandchildren,” he said. “So she has come to South Africa from Harare to sell her crochet and knitting and asked if we could give her a place. That is a huge privilege to house a saint like her.”

But in my one night’s experience sleeping on the floor of the church, I realised there was little gratitude amongst most refugees. They complained that they had to leave the church during daylight hours and that the bishop gave them “only” 15 rand [2 US dollars] a day to spend. Some accused him of raising money at their expense and others complained that newspaper journalists photographed them without their permission. Yet others complained about the high incidence of tuberculosis amongst their fellow refugees.

Verryn finally lost the struggle with his church committee members just before Christmas. When a pair of women’s panties and a used condom were found near the pulpit, the elders insisted that the refugees, including women with young babies, must leave. “We were given a week to pack our belongings and go,” complained Peter Muzanenhamo, a former MDC political activist. “Some church elders were driven by xenophobia and hate.”

The Central Methodist Church refugees have joined some two million fellow Zimbabweans struggling to survive on South African city streets or in poorly paid jobs. “You try to live as invisibly as possible,” said Mkululi Dube, an illegal Zimbabwe immigrant who was once a journalist but now works as a waiter in Johannesburg. “You learn Zulu words and get a local ID, and when the police stop you, you pretend you’re from a South African village.”

In total, official figures issued in Harare suggest that about 3.5 million people - more than a quarter of the population - have fled abroad in the last seven years, most of them to South Africa.

Ntando Ncube is an exiled Zimbabwean journalist living in Johannesburg.

More IWPR's Global Voices