Africa, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

RIGHTS-SOUTH AFRICA: “We Are Just Helping Desperate People Here”

Davison Makanga

CAPE TOWN, Feb 9 2008 (IPS) - A police raid on a Methodist church which provides shelter to hundreds of refugees in the South African financial centre of Johannesburg is continuing to draw angry responses.

Protesters speak out against the raid of a church housing refugees. Credit: Davison Makanga

Protesters speak out against the raid of a church housing refugees. Credit: Davison Makanga

Displaying banners and wearing T-shirts with the slogan ‘Refugee Rights Are Human Rights’, Zimbabwean migrants took to the streets of the coastal city of Cape Town Thursday to demonstrate against the raid, conducted last week.

Officials have been accused of engaging in physical and verbal abuse during the late night raid, during which more than a thousand people – many of them Zimbabweans – were arrested on suspicion of being in South Africa illegally or of involvement in criminal activity.

“We condemn police brutality at the Methodist church; they should respect refugee rights in this country. In fact, the raid is reminiscent of the apartheid era,” said Braam Hanekom, co-ordinator of People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression and Poverty, an immigrant and refugee rights group in South Africa which helped organise the protest.

The Treatment Action Campaign, which lobbies for HIV-positive people to have access to anti-retroviral drugs, also assisted with holding the demonstration. “Our interest in this protest is that many of the people arrested last week were denied access to medication while in custody, and as a movement we condemn that in the strongest terms,” said Regis Mtutu, projects officer for the Cape Town-based organisation.

Methodist representatives have denied that the church was sheltering criminals.

“We are just helping desperate people here. As you might know, most of them are running away from serious situations, like Zimbabwe. The fact that the court did not find any case against these people clearly shows that the police overstepped by harassing these people,” said Thembi Sibanda, a senior official in the Methodist Church.

According to a recent survey, up to a million Zimbabweans are residing in South Africa; most have fled the political and economic crisis in their country. The study was conducted by the Zimbabwe Diaspora Forum, based in Johannesburg, the Mass Public Opinion Institute – a non-profit in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare – and the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.

Along with migrants from other states, Zimbabwean refugees may experience discrimination at the hands of South Africans – in part because of fears that they take jobs in a country already beset by high unemployment.

“I don’t have problems with these makwerekweres, but they cause crime and take all our jobs here,” said Kuselo Tini, a minibus taxi driver in Cape Town. “Makwerekwere” is a derogatory term for foreigners.

Noted Killion Moyo, a Zimbabwean residing in Cape Town, “We now live in fear…They always threaten us with death, especially in high density areas like Khayelitsha.”

However, the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum claims the accusations of South Africans are unfounded.

“It’s not factual that foreigners take all the jobs here. The truth is, South Africa is experiencing a skills shortage; and on the other end, foreigners (take) menial jobs that are shunned by South Africans,” said Gabriel Shumba, executive director of the forum – a non-profit headquartered in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria.

Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold general elections Mar. 29, a poll in which 83-year-old President Robert Mugabe – head of state since independence in 1980 – will seek a sixth term. The vote will take place amidst ongoing rights abuses in South Africa’s northern neighbour, and economic decline that has brought about hyper-inflation, unemployment reported to be at about 80 percent, and shortages of basic goods. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, an estimated 4.1 million Zimbabweans currently require food aid.

In his annual state of the nation address Friday, South African President Thabo Mbeki said the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and the country’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had addressed major differences concerning next month’s ballot – this in talks that he has been mediating at the request of the Southern African Development Community.

“These include issues relating to the constitution, security, media and electoral laws, and other matters that have been in contention for many years,” he noted.

“The relevant laws in this regard have already been approved by parliament, including the necessary constitutional amendments.”

However, the MDC has reportedly been far less optimistic about the results of the negotiations, and expressed anger at Harare’s decision to hold the elections on Mar. 29. The party wants a new constitution passed before the polls.

“We have said it again and again: the elections will be flawed without a people-driven new constitution,” noted spokesman Nelson Chamisa.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network has also expressed concern at the move to hold the ballot next month, saying hurried preparations will undermine the credibility of the vote.

These fears have been echoed by Zimbabwean political analyst John Makumbe: “The March elections are only academic. The ruling party will obviously win and the situation in the country will further deteriorate, and more people will leave the country even after the elections.”

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