by Geoffrey York
Johannesburg — From Thursday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Friday, Jul. 10, 2009 02:48AM EDT
With his bandaged head and empty wallet, Johannes Sibanda is just another casualty of the undeclared war on foreigners in South Africa.
Beaten and robbed by security guards on the streets of Johannesburg, he takes refuge in an overcrowded church where thousands of Zimbabwean migrants are sleeping every night – one of the few places in South Africa where they can feel safe from hostile locals.
“They just hate us,” Mr. Sibanda says. “They hate the foreigners. They treat us like animals.”
A block away from the church, a uniformed security guard – employed by a committee of local merchants – confirms that he is under orders to keep the foreigners confined to a small zone near the church. “We’re always chasing them,” he says. “They’re not allowed on this side of the street.”
The migrants, who fled from hunger and persecution in countries such as Zimbabwe and Somalia, had hoped they would find a safe haven in South Africa, the richest country in the region. But instead they are suffering harassment, discrimination, violence, arbitrary exclusion from health care and education, and even murder.
Just last weekend, police arrested about 350 of the homeless Zimbabweans who were sleeping on the streets outside the church. They were charged with “loitering” and jailed for three days.
A year ago, 62 people were killed and 670 injured in a horrific wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa that grabbed headlines around the world. Scores of foreigners were raped and more than 100,000 were forced to flee their homes.
Since then, not a single South African has been convicted of murder or rape in connection with the anti-foreigner violence, and the xenophobic attacks have continued at a high rate, with dozens more foreigners killed, including 31 Somali shopkeepers in the past year alone, according to a new report by the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, a non-profit group.
In one incident this year, a mob forced two foreign migrants to leap to their death from a high-rise building in Durban. In another case, seven Zimbabweans were locked in a shack and burned to death.
“If we learned any lessons from the May 2008 attacks, it is that you can rob and murder foreigners and get away with it,” the report said.
It described a “culture of impunity” that protects the attackers. Many police officers had known of the attacks in advance, yet they tolerated or supported the violence, and some even participated in the looting of shops owned by foreigners, it said.
“Local leaders and police were typically reluctant to intervene on behalf of victims,” the report said. “In some cases, this was because they supported the community’s hostile attitudes towards non-nationals. In others, they feared losing legitimacy and political positions if they were seen as defending unpopular groups.”
In many cases, the violence finally ended “only when there were no non-nationals left to attack or property remaining to loot or destroy,” the report said.
Most of the anti-foreigner assaults were organized by community leaders and local groups that used the attacks for their own political and economic interests, it said. Most have successfully resisted any attempt to prosecute them, and they are “likely to organize violence again when it suits their material or political interests,” the report said.
Despite the violence, thousands of desperate Zimbabweans continue to cross the border to South Africa every day, often smuggled across by criminal gangs that rape them or steal from them. When they arrive, they take menial jobs to survive. They are left in a legal limbo because of long delays in giving them asylum permits, and they become scapegoats for South Africa’s high unemployment rates, even though they represent only 3 per cent of the population.
Some of the most vulnerable targets are the homeless refugees who take shelter at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg. Every night, as many as 4,000 migrants sleep on pews and stairs and floors inside the church, and on the sidewalks outside. Most are Zimbabweans, but they include other foreigners too – and they include more than 150 unaccompanied children, some as young as 7 years old.
Local law firms have sued to evict the refugees on the grounds that they are bad for business. Merchants have erected a tall iron fence around the church to pen them in. Police sometimes haul away the cardboard boxes and blankets of those who sleep outside. And the migrants are often the targets for shocking attacks on the streets.
One night in early June, a tanker truck rolled past about 100 migrants on the street outside the church, and workers inside the truck sprayed a foul-smelling liquid all over them. “Before I could turn away, the water was on me,” recalled Sir-Jose Tomaz, an 18-year-old Mozambican migrant. “It smelled bad, like sewage water. They sprayed people who were sleeping or eating. Their food was filled with sewage.”
On another night, he watched the police ignoring an assault on a refugee who was robbed and stripped naked. “He was bleeding from his mouth and his nose, but the police did nothing – they were just laughing,” he said.
“They treat us like we are not human. We are doing the donkey’s work for them – the construction work, the cleaning – and they don’t appreciate it.”
Bishop Paul Verryn, the head of the downtown Methodist church, says the refugees were recently attacked by security guards at 2 a.m. as they slept outside the church. “In the middle of the night, people are fleeing for their lives,” he said in an interview. “They suffer from repeated intimidation and harassment. It’s an appalling way to treat people.”
Ambrose Mapiravana, a Zimbabwean who leads the security volunteers at the church, says he was beaten and handcuffed when he tried to stop the security guards from assaulting Mr. Sibanda and other refugees. “It’s not the first time,” he said. “That xenophobia of last year is still here. They want us to leave this country. They told me, ‘You smell bad, you should go back to your own country.’”
The South African government has promised to give special permits to Zimbabwean migrants, allowing them to stay in the country for six months with easier access to employment, health and education. But the much-touted scheme has been repeatedly delayed, and many migrants are still denied the health care and schooling that they are legally entitled to receive.
“Every day they tell us how they’ve been assaulted, abused or raped, and they cannot get health care,” said Bianca Tolboom, a nurse and project co-ordinator for a medical clinic at the church, run by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). The clinic is the only source of health care for thousands of migrants, and its patient load is soaring.
“It’s unacceptable that access to health care is hindered to such an extent,” she said. “The constitution says that everyone has a right to health care, even if they lack legal documents. It’s really shocking to see that the situation for Zimbabweans in South Africa has still not improved.”
She told the story of a Zimbabwean woman who was raped as she crossed the border. When she tried to get treatment at a clinic in Johannesburg, she was turned away because she lacked the $280 that the clinic demanded.
A similar story is told by Lisa Mluana, a 20-year-old Zimbabwean who came to South Africa in hopes of finding a job to pay for her university tuition. When she was badly burned by a pot of boiling water at her home, she went to a private clinic in Johannesburg, where she was bandaged and sent away without any painkillers or any other medicine.
“They treat you like you’re nobody,” she said. “I was really in pain, but they never gave me any medicine. They don’t give you proper attention, even if it’s an urgent case.”
She eventually went to the MSF clinic at the church, where she was given the painkillers that she needed. They treated her “like a sister,” she says.
Visits to the MSF clinic have almost tripled in the past year. The rising burden on the clinic is “a telling sign of the extent to which Zimbabweans are consistently denied access to even the most basic health care services necessary for their survival,” said Eric Goemaere, medical coordinator for MSF in South Africa.
“They come to us because they have nowhere else to turn.”