WONDER Mashayamombe admits he broke the law by coming to South Africa from Zimbabwe without a permit last year, but says he had no choice.
“We come from Zim
babwe because there’s no money, there’s no jobs. Even if you work, you work for nothing. You get a lot of money but you can’t buy anything,” said Mashayamombe, a 26-year-old inmate at the Lindela detention centre for illegal immigrants outside Johannesburg.
Mashayamombe was fleeing Zimbabwe’s worst recession in history but many Africans in less dire circumstances flock to South Africa daily looking to seek their fortunes in the continent’s wealthiest nation. But they are often disappointed by the cold welcome.
Despite its reputation as one of Africa’s most tolerant democracies, foreigners from the continent are not always welcomed with the open arms they expect — a remnant of the apartheid policy of “protecting the borders”.
Widespread poverty, unemployment and crime make South Africa fertile ground for xenophobia and analysts say officials have often exploited this, using newcomers as scapegoats for their failure to solve these problems.
“If you hear the mayor of Johannesburg saying … there are 30 Nigerians on every street corner, they’re selling drugs, involved in prostitution, trafficking, violence, gun running… … you’re going to believe it,” said Loren Landau, director of the Forced Migration Studies programme at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
This is a bitter pill to swallow for those whose countries suffered the brutality of the apartheid regime almost as much as South Africans.
Civilians were often caught in the crossfire in the 1980s when apartheid forces launched frequent attacks into neighbouring countries to destroy bases of the armed wings of the now-ruling African National Congress.
In a country where more than one in four is officially unemployed and where the United Nations says around half the people live on less than R354 (US$54) a month, promoting a more tolerant policy is a political risk, analysts say.
“I think the government … (has to) answer to voters. If its voters tend towards xenophobia then the government can’t really go wildly more welcoming,” said Antony Altbeker, a crime and justice researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
“I think if you tried to explain to an unemployed South African why you are allowing immigrants to come into the country — I think politically that’s a hard sell.”
Analysts say foreigners are denied access to bank accounts, housing and are frequently harassed by police for bribes. A recent study in Johannesburg found that 17% were denied medical care, often even life-saving emergency attention.
“You’re (African foreigners) laughed at, you’re excluded. This for a country trying to build a society on tolerance and human rights,” said Landau, who is an American.
South Africa last year passed new immigration laws aimed at speeding up notoriously slow paperwork and luring much-needed skilled foreigners, but analysts say they do little to help the majority who come knocking at its door — poor Africans.
Official figures show that cumulative immigrant numbers have risen from over 5,8 million in 2001 to around 6,5 million in 2003. This compares with a population of around 45 million.
Most come from Mozambique —historically a source of cheap labour for South African mines. But Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown has seen immigrant numbers from that country soar. New laws have also failed to cool tensions between locals and newcomers, which have often spilled over into violence.
Lindela itself — a brown brick building outside Johannesburg resembling an army barrack, with strict schedules for meals and lockdowns — has frequently made headlines over accusations of inmate mistreatment.
In November last year, at a conference organised by South Africa’s Human Rights Commission, rights activists accused the Department of Home Affairs, which oversees immigration, of widespread abuse of immigrants.
Lindela officials were accused of keeping detainees in unacceptable conditions, resulting in the death of several in one instance. Authorities denied responsibility for the deaths.
Others say people caught while entering the country illegally at the Zimbabwe border were detained for hours and even days outdoors.
The Human Rights Commission has also accused officials of randomly arresting people based on their looks.
Barry Gilder, director-general of the Department of Home Affairs said such cases are not common and where they are found disciplinary action is taken.
“We certainly don’t tolerate any mistreatment of people … The concern … is sometimes the means of checking whether they are South African or not: do you speak Zulu, where’s your vaccination mark, how dark is your skin?” Gilder said.
Gilder said Lindela — boasting sporting facilities and a clinic — is one of the best centres of its kind in the world. For those like Mashayamombe, however, this offers little comfort. He does not think he should ever have been sent there.
“I remember during apartheid, the South Africans, they were coming to Zimbabwe, they were going to Nigeria to seek refuge,” Mashayamombe said.
“But now this is their way of saying thank you to us. We are neighbours but they treat us as if we are criminals.” — Reuter.