Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

RIGHTS: In South Africa, Zimbabwean Refugees Find Sanctuary and Contempt

Michael Deibert

JOHANNESBURG, May 4 2008 (IPS) - As the autumn sun sets over South Africa&#39s most populous city, the halls of downtown Johannesburg&#39s Central Methodist Mission fill with weary figures, many far from home, seeking solace within its walls.

Zimbabwean refugees at the Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg. Credit: Michael Deibert/IPS

Zimbabwean refugees at the Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg. Credit: Michael Deibert/IPS

On every spare inch of space on the floors and narrow staircase of the mission – and on the pavement outside – the destitute curl up to find shelter as best they can from the chill wind that moves between the tall buildings in this city. Mixed in among them every night are hundreds of refugees from South Africa&#39s northern neighbour, Zimbabwe, who have fled their country&#39s slow-motion economic and political implosion.

"We sleep outside in the streets. Sometimes we spend days without eating anything; we spend weeks without working," says Owen Muchanyo, a 23-year-old secondary school teacher of mathematics and science from Chitungwiza, a town south of Zimbabwe&#39s capital, Harare.

He has been in South Africa for three months. "It&#39s better to sleep on the streets, where my life is somewhat safe, than to sleep in a house when my life is in danger."

A good number of those who now find themselves in Johannesburg have the skills needed to help pull their country out of the morass in which it finds itself.

"There are professional people here who might help to move their own country forward, but we are coming here to suffer because of one person in Zimbabwe and that is Robert Mugabe," says Raymond Chingoma, a 32-year-old political analyst from Harare who arrived in Johannesburg in September 2007, in reference to Zimbabwe&#39s long time president.

Zimbabwe has been in a state of limbo for more than a month awaiting results from the country&#39s presidential poll, which pitted Mugabe against former trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai. General elections took place Mar. 29.

Election officials finally declared on Friday that neither of the two men had won more than 50 percent of the ballot, meaning that a run-off will have to be held within the next three weeks.

Amidst delays in announcing the outcome of the presidential vote, the two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – the larger of which is led by Tsvangirai – joined forces to deprive Mugabe&#39s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) of the parliamentary majority it has held for the past 28 years.

Mugabe, who was said by observers to have rigged a 2002 presidential ballot which some believe Tsvangirai won, now stands accused of using his government and party to carry out brutal attacks against those who may oppose him, a tactic that critics say they have long become accustomed to.

"I was supporting the opposition party and with election time coming I had to leave because I was afraid of ZANU-PF violence against the opposition supporters," Muchanyo continues. "My family was beaten because most of them are MDC supporters. The ZANU-PF youth came and raided our home, took everyone out to their base, and there beat everyone."

Chitungwiza, the town that Muchanyo hails from, has become a stronghold of the MDC and was one of the areas that suffered most during Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, "murambatsvina" being variously translated as "restore order" and "drive out trash".

A police action ostensibly aimed at reigning in illegal housing settlements, the operation was said by a July 2005 United Nations report to have left at least 700,000 people homeless.

For its part, the Zimbabwean human rights group Sokwanele characterised the raids as "a Zimbabwean Kristallnacht", in reference to the destruction of Jewish properties in 1939 by Nazi mobs in Germany, while the Boston-based Affordable Housing Institute referred to Operation Murambatsvina as "slow genocide by bulldozer".

Muchanyo&#39s experience is not an isolated incident. In March 2007, Tsvangirai&#39s swollen visage was splashed across newspapers worldwide after he and several supporters were arrested and tortured by riot police.

"Some of the things that I hear in this office, night after night, in that chair where you&#39re sitting, make me think that we&#39ve got big trouble coming," says Bishop Paul Verryn, who directs the Central Methodist Mission and holds church services and other outreach programmes for the Zimbabweans.

"I asked why they have left their country and they start with the litany: &#39I was beaten, I was tortured, I was hit on the soles of my feet, I&#39ve got scars on my back, I can&#39t sleep at night because of nightmares&#39," (see Q&A: "We Mustn&#39t Think as South Africans That We Have Won the Day").

The views of people inside the mission contrast sharply with those of South African President Thabo Mbeki who, on a visit to Harare in April, insisted there was "no crisis" in Zimbabwe.

Similarly, Zimbabweans arriving in South Africa are often given a reception that is less than welcoming.

On the evening of Jan. 30 around 23.00 local time, the mission was raided by dozens of officers from the South African Police Service (SAPS) who were allegedly looking for weapons, ammunition and drugs – local merchants having complained that the Byzantine passageways of the multi-storied structure had become a hideout for criminals.

According to some who were there that night, the police beat several people severely, destroyed property and looted residents&#39 belongings; some 300 people were summarily hauled off to jail.

Elizabeth Cheza, a 29-year-old who worked as a data entry clerk and MDC volunteer before leaving Zimbabwe in 2005, was awakened by a police officer pointing a gun in her face and shouting at her in Zulu to get up. Telling the story in the small room in the mission that she shares with a female friend and the woman&#39s 11-month-old daughter, Cheza matter-of factly describes her experience that night.

"It was quite hot, so when I was sleeping I was just wrapping myself with a cloth," she says. "When I stood up, he (the police officer) slapped me like I was taking too much of his time. I went to hold my face, and that cloth I was holding just fell, and I was stark naked there in front of the man."

Verryn, a veteran of South Africa&#39s anti-apartheid movement, says he was also roughed up during the raid and saw people bleeding after being beaten by police. He views the incident as a blow against the kind of society that post-apartheid South Africa is trying to build.

"We have had the police in here on occasions when they really have been spectacular in the way in which they&#39ve handled tricky situations, in the way in which they&#39ve resolved conflicts: they&#39ve been immediate and they&#39ve been focused," says Verryn. "But there&#39s another side of the police, and it&#39s fascist, it&#39s unbending, it&#39s cynical, it will not listen and it&#39s dictatorial. It&#39s everything you would not want."

The police, for their part, say that they acted on the basis of good information and that legal recourse is available to those who believe they were mistreated.

"We had information that that was a hotspot where people would commit robberies and run into the building," says Govindsamy Mariemuthoo, head of communications for the SAPS in Gauteng Province, of which Johannesburg is a part. "Any person who felt that his rights were infringed (during the raid) could report that to the central station, where the matter would be investigated."

The Legal Resources Centre, a public interest law clinic based in Johannesburg, took on the case of the jailed detainees, and eventually succeeded in having them released after weeks of wrangling with a recalcitrant magistrate.

In a decision ordering the detainees freed that clearly referred to the apartheid era, South Africa&#39s High Court characterised the police action and subsequent imprisonment of the refugees as reminiscent "of some of the grotesque obscenities with which members of our legal profession were familiar 20 years ago" and criticised the police and the magistrate for "brutal and indifferent and indeed cruel treatment of human beings."

The court&#39s message is one that the Zimbabwean refugees at the Central Methodist Mission wish more in their adopted country would heed.

"They take us not as their neighbours, but as animals," says Chingoma, as he prepares to scan the mission&#39s corridors for a place to sleep for the night. "They don&#39t treat us well. When you go and say you are looking for a job, they treat you as if you are not an African, and you deserve to suffer. But we don&#39t deserve that."

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