Irin, 16 May 2002
PLEASE NOTE: Readers wishing to reproduce and
reference this article
should contact the editors of Irin for permission
Stella is 23-years-old and about to be deported to Zimbabwe.
For R1,000 a month (about US $100) she prepared salads and
sandwiches in a pub in Johannesburg's wealthy northern suburbs.
In her hometown of Bulawayo she had no work. Last week on her way home she was stopped by police in Johannesburg's high-rise suburb of Hillbrow and asked for her identity document. Unable to produce one she was allowed to go home to collect toiletries and some personal items and then taken to the infamous Lindela repatriation centre outside Krugersdorp.
This privately-run centre, which is situated among old gold mines west of Johannesburg - which ironically once thrived on immigrant labour - is the last stop before deportation. The centre accommodates about 6,000 people a month, many of them waiting the full 30 days alloted by law for immigration officials and their embassies to decide if they stay or go. For many, the repatriation papers will be the only official documentation they've ever had.
Sitting on the grass in the pale winter sun, surrounded by high ochre-coloured walls, Stella is resigned to her fate. When asked how she crossed the border into South Africa, which the Department of Home Affairs admits is porous, she looks away, a small smile playing on her lips.
"Next time I will try to get papers," she said.
Next to her is a woman apprehended in Johannesburg's Alexandra township. She is reluctant to reveal anything about herself as she feeds her chubby baby from the food tray containing samp (maize) and beans, chicken and spicy chakalaka sauce. Next to her are two other babies, unsteadily eyeing the brightly coloured jungle gym, their mothers and two female security guards watching them closely.
Women form about 20 percent of those held at Lindela. By day, as they wait to be sent home, they play netball or doze or line the perimeter wall gossiping in their new found camaraderie. Most are in their teens or twenties and the scene resembles a community playground rather than a detention centre. By night reality hits as they file into dormitories with up to 28 irin double bunk-beds.
The men's section on the other side of the heavy blue security gate has the same ochre-coloured walls and night-club style murals of famous musicians. But here it's a bustle of men playing checkers and mbau on thick concrete slabs, washing clothes, sitting on their haunches sharing cigarettes.
A long line of men, some still wearing overalls splattered with paint, queue to phone friends, family, connections, arranging matters in quick urgent tones, asking for things to be brought to them. At the end of the courtyard howls of outrage and cheers punctuate a packed football match.
Most rooms have television sets and inside, men sit on their beds or in the cash canteen watching music videos. Home Affairs officials visiting the centre are crowded by people who want to complain or pitch a last ditch plea to avoid being sent home.
The officials listen attentively but maintain that many there "constantly change their stories." To beat a flurry of aliases the centre now takes fingerprints on arrival and each person's details are captured on a barcoded security card. They have to produce these at meal times and at the clinic, so that staff can know at any time how many people are there.
Aaron, a middle aged Zimbabwean, says this is his third stint in Lindela. "I work as a security guard in Johannesburg, I'm just waiting to go back." Lowering his voice conspiratorially Aaron complains that the guards beat them with batons at night and the food gives him a rash. A young boy wearing white and red butcher's boots leans into Aaron and says "tell her about the beating last night."
Cameras follow everybody's movements with security staff monitoring a wall of screens in a darkened control room. The tapes are kept for two months and retrieved to resolve allegations of beatings or ill treatment.
But while the centre may appear attractive with it's activities roster, free clinic, library and religious services and walls dotted with extracts of human rights clauses, this doesn't stop escape attempts.
A few months ago, a group of men managed to scale the thick high walls, run across bare grass, over a razor wire fence, over a second electric fence, past dog kennels and into the night. They were caught and one was beaten to death. His death sparked a mini riot and police and centre security locked everyone in their rooms until the tension eased.
An investigation is underway but one of the centre's directors Gavin Watson says the man was killed by patrons of a nearby shebeen. He claimed they mistook the fleeing foreigners, who were unable to understand their calls to them in the dark and were bleeding from the razor wire, for the perpetrators of recent rapes in the area. Watson said the centre officials sent to fetch them were mistakenly implicated in the deaths.
Last year the centre, run by hospitality company Bosasa, cost the South African government about R32 million (around US $3 million). Though most of the detainees are from African countries - particularly Mozambique and Zimbabwe - almost every country on the globe has featured in the centre's computer system. Most nearby repatriations are by train or truck. But those further afield, like China, can cost up to R20,000 (US $2,000) which includes the fare of an accompanying immigration official.
Some people complain that South Africans living in sprawling shanty towns don't get that kind of social spending from the government. But Home Affairs Director General Billy Masetlha says the people at the centre clearly don't belong in already overcrowded police cells and are entitled to humane treatment.
He believes the numbers who pass through the centre will reduce when the region's economic and social conditions improve and pegs his hopes on President Thabo Mbeki's New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) which is touted to jump start the region's economies.
"Ninety-five percent of the detainees were looking for a job. We've got to be sympathetic and we can't criminalise these people. People are wading through rivers containing very dangerous animals like crocodiles - they are trying to find money whatever the cost. We can't ignore the pull factor," he said.
However, Masetlha questioned why people weren't acquiring proper travel documents. "We had about 6 million visitors last year and they all went home - so why not these 6,000 we see every month?"
Jody Kollapen of the South African Human Rights Commission said conditions have improved at the centre, but "when you look beyond the buildings and the food you see a scale of human suffering, the look of desperation on their faces."
Emma Algotsson, a researcher for Lawyers for Human Rights said: "We are concerned about how people get here in the first place. Many people living in rural areas can't get to the cities to buy visas and passports. A woman selling tomatoes across the border doesn't have money to go and buy a visa."
Meanwhile, in the courtyard a man with a megaphone calls out names to lines of men sitting impassively on concrete benches. One man in his early twenties stands up when his name is called, the men surrounding him smile and pat him farewell. He'll be on the truck to Lesotho in a few hours.
But, as the legend goes, he'll probably be back in Johannesburg before the truck.