Is how a country treats the most vulnerable of its people not a test of its humanity?

25th March 2009 By: Idasa, an African Democracy Institute

The small town of Musina on the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa is the first stop for new arrivals and their introduction to what we proudly call ‘ubuntu' or South African hospitality.

However, a trip to Musina a few weeks ago revealed a situation one would expect to see in a war-zone. Standing in the middle of the town's Showgrounds were 3 000 people without formal shelter and with insufficient access to ablution facilities. These human beings were standing amongst sweating garbage, unable to move for fear of arrest and too exhausted to interact as a result of a lack of nutrition. How, in a country with one of the most advanced constitutions in the world, does a situation like this develop?

The Constitution of South Africa gives South African citizens and foreigners the same rights. That is, rights to adequate housing, access to healthcare, food, water, education and social security are to be afforded to all who stand on South African soil, regardless of nationality or status. If only our government would publicly endorse and uphold these laws and not treat asylum seekers as irritants, vagrants and at times, no more than criminals.

It is not practical for the purposes of this article to provide an exposition of the reasons why Zimbabweans are flooding into South Africa. What is important is the history of maltreatment at the hands of the Departments of Home Affairs (DHA) and Local Government in South Africa that refugees have experienced since 2000. If one looks at the experience of Zimbabweans who have come to South Africa to escape political persecution, avoid starvation or death from cholera and other illnesses; one should feel deeply ashamed of being a South African.

In a country that triumphed against Apartheid, why would so many thousands of people be forced to live in squalor? While one could lay blame at the feet of the Musina municipality, it was in fact the DHA who would not, or could not process asylum seekers from neighbouring Zimbabwe timeously. This rendered them unable to leave Musina as they risked arrest for being undocumented, would have been unable to work to buy food and unable to purchase any form of temporary shelter, even just a cardboard box or piece of heavy duty plastic.

This treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is a travesty for several reasons. Firstly, without a Section 23 Transit Permit (valid for 14 days), or better yet a Section 22 Asylum Seeker Permit (valid for up to 6 months) the government considers immigrants to be in the country illegally. Yet, the throngs of people wasting away in the Showgrounds were waiting for their turn to apply for asylum with the DHA, a process that at last count was taking over 5 weeks for some individuals; when it should take no more than 3 days. Secondly, without adequate paperwork it is impossible to find legal employment, access housing or access medical treatment. However, it has been widely documented that asylum seeker permit holders have also been at the mercy of prejudicial staff in governmental departments. Stereotyping and xenophobic attitudes towards ‘makwerekwere' (foreigners) are frequently reported, even when someone requires life saving medical attention or a pregnant woman needs shelter.

When one considers the country from which these people have fled, nutrition, medical and sometimes psychological interventions are often vital. One would think with our advanced establishment our government would treat this population with the dignity and empathy they deserve as vulnerable human beings. It is unacceptable that the municipality of Musina would not cater to the most basic and legally endorsed needs of these refugees. If the DHA's system for registering new applicants was not adequate; resulting in people having to stay in the town for several days or weeks, the municipality should have tried to ensure that the state acted in the best interests of the asylum seekers.

Instead, until a few weeks ago they were left to rot in the Showgrounds, the only place that offered them some level of protection from arbitrary arrest and/or deportation. Whilst predominantly protected from arrest, instances of rape were rife. Women are often raped on entry into South Africa by the ‘gumba gumba' or local bandits as payment for safe passage across the Limpopo River. They were then at high risk of rape whilst they were living in the Showgrounds. It may not always be possible to prevent rape but physical and psychological treatment for victims should have been made available.

Local churches and international organisations came to the service of this neglected population in Musina and began to expose the shortfalls of the state response in the media. This was an embarrassment to the African National Congress (ANC) but instead of correcting the situation and providing basic shelter, food and healthcare for people while they waited to be processed by the DHA they turned a blind eye. When the ‘cry foul' exposés became too much to bear, what did our 15 year young democratically elected government do? They shut the Showgrounds with no warning and in contravention of agreed arrangements with local groups. This left the immigrants in an even more vulnerable situation. Some were processed by the DHA in a day or two (how that was suddenly possible is a question only the department can answer) and bussed off to Makadho, Polokwane or Johannesburg. It is not clear what happened to all of those residing at the Showgrounds as some disappeared, probably into the bush for fear of arrest.

The act of closing the Showgrounds is not condemnable in and of itself as the living conditions were deplorable. However, the fact that the situation was ever allowed to get that bad and that the ‘solution' was in fact inhumane is inexcusable. In addition, the problems of the Musina Showgrounds have only been moved to Johannesburg and in a much worse setting, the same problems can now be seen in and around the Central Methodist Church in the city centre of Johannesburg.

The new arrivals from the Musina Showgrounds have to sleep on the busy streets as all available shelters are full. There are no ablution blocks nor is there safety from arrest by police who lack an understanding of the laws that protect these vulnerable people. The neighbouring Small Street Mall's shop owners are understandably vexed at this situation as are local businesses and lodgers, but where do these groups expect the thousands of refugees to go? The state makes no concessions for new applicants who do not have the means to find work, accommodation and food if they do not have family in South Africa. After the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, portaloos were provided to deal with human waste, but they were not being properly serviced. After much hesitation and irritation, public toilets have finally been opened for these people to use.

This treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is in direct violation of the bill of rights in the South African constitution which is based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enshrines the right to shelter, food and security.

When one considers the situation as it stands today, one fact stares us in the face. After the shameful Xenophobic attacks of 2008 and the resulting nightmare of how to deal with foreigners living on the states ‘good will', government should have been prepared to handle or at least begun to develop appropriate responses to the situation that developed in Musina. It can have come as no surprise that as Zimbabwe fell deeper and deeper into decline more and more Zimbabweans would come to South Africa for assistance.

The government has, once again, started to talk of establishing ‘transit camps', basically a form of refugee camp, for the human beings who continue to wait to be processed by the DHA. The DHA processing backlog currently stands at about 100 000 applications. Who knows how long this group of immigrants will need to be in transit camps as a result of this bottleneck in the system. If these transit camps accommodate applicants in humane and dignified conditions then they could provide a short-term solution to the current situation. However, if they turn out to be a form of detention camp, what does that say about the state of human rights in South Africa?

Lessons, it seems, are not learnt from experience. We can only hope history does not repeat itself. If it does, South Africa will be remembered by history for its inhumanity to people in need.

By: Emily Wellman