From Medieval times churches have always been considered places of refuge or sanctuary. “Sanctuary” (derived from the Latin sanctuarium meaning a container for keeping something safe) is a holy place or a safe place. Churches and embassies had, until last week, one thing in common: if you entered either, seeking refuge, you would be assured of protection. To violate a foreign embassy is to violate the integrity of a foreign state.
One of the most well known sanctuaries in South Africa is the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg. During the 2008 xenophobic attacks thousands of people, fleeing for their lives, found sanctuary there. Yet, last week, using apartheid-style tactics, the South African Police, Johannesburg Metro Police and the South African National Defence Force invaded the Church in the early hours of the morning kicking down doors and brandishing automatic weapons. The authorities that sanctioned this raid claim that it was done in the name of Operation Fiela (to “sweep up” or “clean out” the dirt). Government launched the operation in response to the recent xenophobic violence that swept the country.
In 1972 the world watched, horrified, as the South African Police stormed St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town where students were protesting against apartheid. In the apartheid era police targeted a number of Churches; Regina Mundi in Soweto still bares the scars of such raids. Tabernacles were raided because some in the police thought that tabernacles were places where restricted materials and weapons were kept. The dignity of the church was violated.
Forty years on the same old tricks are being used. According to authorities they received a tip-off indicating that there was “criminal activity” taking place in the Central Methodist Church. This tip-off took place (coincidentally?) after a fresh spate of xenophobic attacks and in a place where immigrants sought refuge from violent attacks against them. The police (and their mighty entourage) arrived with, by all accounts, no warrant. In South African law the police need a warrant to search a property. An exception can be made if there is reasonable ground to suspect a crime is in process and that a warrant would have been be issued if time allowed. The people sleeping in the Church were rounded up and taken by bus to Johannesburg’s Central Police Station. Reports say that parents were given no chance to dress their children warmly and they were not allowed to take blankets with them.
The Government believes that Operation Fiela is an answer to combating xenophobia in SA. Raiding the Central Methodist Church symbolically suggests that immigrants are the problem. But the complex problem has its roots in the fact that many people in this country are angry, frustrated and hopeless because each day brings a new struggle to survive. The way a society treats immigrants says much more about the state of itself than what it does about foreigners. It’s a smokescreen for the real issue: a Government that is failing its own people. That’s the crux. In a desperate attempt to redirect the focus and perpetuate the myth, we slump to another low: a sanctuary is raided. It’s a pity that Operation Fiela cannot clean out where it really counts.