Johannesburg — Since the police and the army started Operation Fiela shortly after the xenophobic attacks a month ago, more than 1 650 foreigners have been arrested.
By Oupa Nkosi
The police say that among those arrested were two Ethiopians accused of child trafficking, a Zimbabwean man was found in possession of explosives worth about R100 000 and two murder suspects were also arrested in Dobsonville.
A Mozambican was arrested at the Lebombo border post with more than 2kg of ephedrine, and copper and gold worth around R24 million was seized at the Beitbridge border post.
But despite the apparent success of the anti-crime operation, a coalition of nongovernmental organisations, including Lawyers for Human Rights, Médecins Sans Frontières, Section27, Corruption Watch, Africa Diaspora Forum and Awethu, has criticised Operation Fiela for perpetuating xenophobia.
They say the campaign is unfairly targeting foreign nationals and mistakenly equates the presence of undocumented foreigners in South Africa with crime.
Below, five foreign refugees tell of their hopes and fears for their future in South Africa.
Lucas Machel (25), a bricklayer from Mozambique
Machel has been living in South Africa since 2008. Four months ago, his work permit expired. He now feels uncertain about his future.
Since Operation Fiela was intensified, he finds it hard to do his job. In the early hours of last Monday, he and other foreigners were dropped off at the Johannesburg house they are renovating. An unmarked car packed with policemen suddenly appeared. They all ran for their lives. Some hid in an outside room, others jumped over walls into neighbours’ yards. Only the project manager who had the correct documents remained behind. “Eish, now things are difficult again,” says Machel. “People here no longer want us, they say we should go back home.”
With the little money he earns he pays rent, his children’s school fees and sends home what’s left. Because he is paid daily, he cannot afford to miss work.
“Since I don’t have a permit, I’m thinking of going to Pretoria to apply, but money is scarce.”
Two of his three children are in Mozambique and one is in South Africa. Machel is worried about his little boy. He asks: “If I’m sent back home, who’s going to support him?”
Kazango Elizee (38), a teacher and priest from the DRC
Elizee’s provocative preaching about corruption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) got him into trouble with the law there. In 2001 he had to flee for his life in the back of a truck. “I found myself in Johannesburg by default,” he says. “I did not know where the driver was taking me but I knew I was going to be alive.”
Elizee met and married his soulmate in South Africa. Life was bliss until the 2008 xenophobic attacks began. His wife was raped while pregnant with their second child and they lost all their possessions when they were forced to move out of the place they were renting near Thokoza on the East Rand.
Elizee and his family now live in a shelter in Randfontein. He is a qualified teacher but cannot find work. “It’s terrible. I cannot get a job, cannot open a bank account. I feel insecure. It’s like hell. What can I do?
“I need protection from somewhere. South Africa is our country; it’s in Africa.” Elizee says the protection he seeks can only come from the department of home affairs in the form of refugee papers, but he is reluctant to visit because he has experienced xenophobia at their offices.
Even though he has lived in South Africa for 16 years, he is still an asylum seeker. All his children were born here but they don’t have rights as the locals do.
“What South Africans are doing, beating people, is the same way they treat us in the office,” he says.
Shakina Murhububa (28), a hairdresser from the DRC
“When you are free, you can do something with your life,” says Murhububa, who lives in Pretoria West in a single room in a building once used as a student dormitory. “I’m like a slave person. I have kids. I don’t have money. I cannot get a job.”
She unlocks her door and her three children — Victoria, Sarah and Samuel — come to greet her. Her bed takes up almost the entire room. With a TV and a fridge, there’s not much space left.
Because of the political upheaval and a broken family, Murhububa had to flee her country. She got here with her children on the back of a truck in 2012. She struggled to find a place until a man offered her one. After a few weeks he demanded sex in exchange. She fell pregnant and the man vanished. Now she survives by plaiting people’s hair and washing clothes. Her charges vary according to what the customer can afford.
She adds: “Sometimes I struggle paying the rent. Life here is difficult. There is no food to feed the kids as we speak.”
When she has a serious problem she doesn’t bother to lay a charge. Police usually tell her to go back where she comes from. “Once they see that you cannot speak Sotho or Zulu, they know that you are a foreigner already and since there is xenophobia, everyone takes advantage.
“They know they can kill us and we cannot do anything.”
Yemani Embaye (30), a businessman from Eritrea
In 2007, Embaye bribed his way to South Africa, after fleeing his home for political reasons — he was conscripted to serve in the army.
He says: “I heard SA is a free country and I decided to live here.”
Embaye got his temporary asylum permit and for a while things went well for him until he wanted a permanent permit. He claims the home affairs offices in Marabastad demanded a bribe. He did not have money then and is still undocumented. Embaye went to Lawyers for Human Rights, who wrote him “a letter that states that my application is in review”, he says. “I should produce it when the police want to see my papers.” Luckily, he has not been asked yet. “I’m not sure the police will accept it, but if I see police on the streets, I hide.”
Embaye can speak both Sesotho and Sepedi. He is married to a South African woman and they have a daughter —“I feel very welcomed here,” he says.
When I ask him about Operation Fiela and how it might affect his life, he takes a moment to respond. “Whatever will happen, I will stay here,” he says. “I cannot go back home. If I go back, they will kill me.”