Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Education and Training Initiatives at the Central Methodist Church Refugee House in Johannesburg

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Education and Training Initiatives at the Central Methodist Church Refugee House in Johannesburg

Article excerpt


It is estimated that about 3 million Zimbabweans have migrated to South Africa, mainly because of their country's economic crisis which started in the late 1990s (Lubbe, 2008). By November 2008; Zimbabwe's annual inflation rate was 89.7 sextillion (Hanke, 2009). Political violence, economic collapse and mismanagement and the violation of property rights led many Zimbabweans to flee their country into neighbouring South Africa.

Some Zimbabwean economic migrants and political refugees have been given refuge and provided with shelter at the Central Methodist Church (CMC) in the Central Business District of Johannesburg. Built in 1965, the five-storey CMC today serves a humanitarian function by sheltering Zimbabwean (adult and child) refugees, a small number of migrants from other African countries and a few South Africans. Between 2004 and 2005 Zimbabweans desperate for accommodation, basic provisions and financial assistance began to seek help at the church from the generous Bishop Paul Verryn. Most of them had no alternative accommodation and were sleeping in the open at Park Station. The CMC housed these immigrants, beginning with fewer than 10 in 2004, 50 at the beginning of 2005 and over 300 by the end of that year (Climb, pers. comm.).

Between 2006 and 2007 there was a marked increase in the number of people seeking shelter at the CMC Refugee centre. By the end of 2007 more than 1 500 refugees were staying at the Refugee House, sleeping on the bare floors, corridors, steps and different halls in the five-storey building (Parra, 2009). At the peak of the Zimbabwe crisis between 2008 and the first quarter of 2009 the church housed about 4 000 political refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants, with some refugees sleeping on the pavements and streets outside the building (Seale, 2009). The accelerated rise in the number of refugees at the church house is attributable to a wave of violence experienced by foreigners in South African townships during the May 2008 xenophobic attacks (Waghid, 2009). This ugly form of 'cosmopolitan justice' affected foreigners living in some Johannesburg townships and in the inner city (Waghid, 2009, 88; Kruger & Osman, 2010). During and after the xenophobic attacks many affected foreigners sought refuge and shelter at the CMC (Zhou, pers. comm.). It is within this context that the need for education and training was felt. Thus the refugee community has established a combined school - St Albert Street Refugee School - and, early childhood, adult education and vocational training centres that offer courses in sewing, basic computer studies and waitering.

This paper investigates the education and training developments at the CMC refugee centre. Refugee education is an emerging field of study that is under-researched in South Africa, though cognate articles dealing with immigrant learners' experiences in public schools have appeared in this journal (Sookrajh, Gopal & Maharaj, 2005; Kruger & Osman, 2010). The present article focuses rather on educational initiatives by a homogenous refugee group in a challenging context. It raises issues of importance in the field of adult education and innovatively attends to questions of education and training in disadvantaged communities. The article also empirically reports on two variations on the existing forms of refugee education, namely 'Renewed education for repatriation' and 'Adjusted education for integration'.

Research methodology

This article comes out of my Masters' research report1 submitted to the Wits School of Education. In carrying out my research I used the ethnographic approach - or more precisely what Merriam, (2001, 14) calls 'educational ethnography' - to elicit information about the development of a refugee centre in an urban environment and how the Zimbabwean refugee community initiated and provided education and training programmes in such a context. Ethnography is a qualitative research approach used to study a group's social and cultural system (McMillan & Schumacher, 2001; Merriam, 2001). …

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