SPECIAL REPORT: INSIDE LINDELA

by Abbey Makoe, The Star, 19 July 2002

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No one shed a tear. In spite of their large number - there were more than a thousand - none of the men and women felt the need to cry over their looming deportation as they stayed incarcerated at the Lindela repatriation camp. They had been there before, in the same situation and at the same place, and had learnt to circumvent the imperfect system by finding their way back into South Africa. Their dismissive, if not indifferent, attitude was summed up by a young man in his early twenties from Mozambique who interrupted Terrence Letsholo. Letsholo is an induction officer and also head of security who had risen through the ranks. "You can say what you want, but next week I'll be coming back with five others. I'll be the sixth," the Mozambican bragged.

Tuesday July 16 2002: I am a locked up inside the Lindela repatriation camp near Krugersdorp, armed with some cash, a notebook and a pen, which we're later told falls under a list of prohibited items. "You could injure others using a pen," Letsholo explains to the bewilderment of many. Truth is, I have just worked myself into trouble, if you may after setting myself up as an illegal immigrant from Botswana. I eventually joined hordes of illegal immigrants whose faces showed their fury at being arrested and kept at the controversial camp. They all seem to share something in common beyond being picked up by the SAPS and immigration officials from all over Gauteng. The entire system doesn't work because virtually all will find their way back into Africa's breadbasket, Thabo Mbeki's land of mink and manure. They are furious at what they refer to as an "annoying temporary inconvenience". I waltzed into the camp late afternoon to find nearly 200 people waiting. It was an open place, some sort of a courtyard. Several rows of concrete chairs, painted in a dark brown paint, lay under a gazebo. Opposite were three offices prominently marked in white paint - "consulate". Each of the three offices had a brown wooden desk and three chairs. I occupied one of the chairs in one room, but pulled it away towards the door and leaned against the wall. We were allowed into the offices as a cold wind blew outside. All credit to Terrence Letsholo, chief of security, who invited us in, although his unidentified assistant was not impressed at our apparent comfort. As we waited, a female security guard informed us that we would be called into the computer room, just a stone's throw from where we evaded the cold, for data capturing. A short, chubby and polite woman, she called us in turn depending on the police station where we had been booked. She hollered with papers in her hands: "Pretoria, Diepkloof, Orlando, Booysens, Jeppe, Hillbrow . One by one and with amazing, if not award-winning patience, we were processed by a middle-aged white man operating the computer. Letsholo, an affable, handsome and articulate young man, was on hand to help us get our fingerprints taken. When my turn camel had to emulate those who had passed before me. I announced confident1y, but with my head strategically facing down: "I am Jeffrey Makwe. I was born in Botswana. I am 40 years old." I briefly removed my cap for the picture to be taken. I prayed no one recognised my face! And then I made way for others, holding on to my new identity card, which we would later be told how important it was to keep all the time. Then, like herded cattle, we duly moved into the next room, bigger but also boasting long rows of concrete chairs. These were also painted brown.

We sat diligently as Letsholo, undoubtedly the night's protagonist, paced at the front of the room to read us the house rules, and not the riot act that had been expected. He is fluent in English, Zulu and Sotho, and his attempt at Shangaan was widely appreciated. "Ladies and gentlemen," the young man started, "welcome to Lindela. For as long as you are in Lindela, I am going to be like your father, or brother or friend." He made his spectacular oral presentation first in English, then Zulu and Sotho, and at times looked my way as if to inquire whether I'm related to a newspaper columnist - a thought I obviously dreaded. It was comforting to hear Letsholo stress: "No one in this place has a right to beat you up." Many sighed with relief. But, he warned, "especially you, Motswana man (referring to me), please look after your cellphone". He warned Zimbabweans that Lindela was not a place where they could gamble with cards and warned the rest to look after their personal possessions as Tanzanians were good at pick-pocketing. That's when I decided I would sleep wearing all my clothes, including boots! Other instructions were that no one was allowed to sell anything once inside Lindela, be it cigarettes or extra clothes. 'Also," warned Letsholo, "no one should try to escape because it is too dangerous. Our fences are high. We have, one with barbed wire and the other is electric. Besides, there are patrol dogs running between the fences. If the dogs should find you stuck there you can't say 'I'm sorry'. So don't try to escape. You'll only hurt yourself." Letsholo also warned that inmates discovered selling cigarettes would have them confiscated and distributed to potential buyers for free. Same thing with clothes. If found selling clothes "it means you don't want them any longer and we will give to them to those who were arrested wearing short pants and light stuff". After induction we were subjected to body searches. There were three security guards to perform the task. We formed long queues and one by one, were ordered to step barefooted onto a greyish blanket. The first official used a metal detector to body-search us, while the other two applied their skills at a thorough manual body search. "You can't beat all three of us," one boasted after finding a pen in a Mozambican's man's pockets. Items such as nail clippers, sharp instruments and tools such as a trowel were taken away and stored. A pack of cards from a Zimbabwean man was also thrown away. Letsholo and his troops finished searching us at 10pm and we were taken to the dining hall for supper. Later they stood us in a long queue and marched us in pairs, in an almost drill-like manner taking us into the cells. My partner was a quiet man who would later sleep in the bed next to mine. It was a happy ending after a snail's pace procedure that lasted too many hours.

Stench of toilet in cell number 3 is masked by cigarette smoke - Cell number three, in which I was held, lay just a stone's throw from cell number one that only housed Nigerians. "This was done after a special request because there are things, or rituals, that they perform together in the middle of the night, such as praying," an official told us. As we were marched in pairs to our various cells, (there are 30) my new Zimbabwean friend Sifiso Ndlovu and I were in front of the queue. We were, therefore, lucky to have the first choice of bunk beds. "Which way shall we go?" I asked Ndlovu, who is familiar with prison life after serving two years in Leeukop. His answer was to fling himself onto the bottom bed in the corner 1 followed and chose the one next to his. There was noise everywhere as inmates scrambled for beds. In the end, all 56 of us knew where each would sleep. From Ndlovu's and my bed we struggled to catch a view of the television set that was tucked above the door. Nevertheless we managed by changing sleeping positions. As soon as everyone settled, house rules were broken one after the other. First to do so was Zimbabwean Gerald Zitha (20). "Cigarettes here, one rand each," he screamed from his bed. The rush to him was unbelievable. In no time the entire room was engulfed in smoke. One could have easily thought the house was on fire. The bunk beds were in four rows. Our section, which faced the door, had four. To our left were eight bunk beds and to our right 11. Two were next to the door, occupied by unlucky men who struggled to see the TV set. The cell was roughly 10m by 9m. Inside the cell was a shower with a toilet next to it and a silver basin where those who had toothbrushes and toothpaste brushed their teeth. The walls around the toilet were about 2m high. Dozens of men formed a queue to the toilet after we had supper. Because the partitioning wall does not go right to the roof the stench emanating from the toilet flooded the cell. Man, I've never appreciated cigarette smoke like that. It served as an air freshener! Chief of security Terrence Letsholo had warned that there was no hot water in the shower. He advised us to take a shower outside at a clearly designated communal area. "But please, never go to the shower alone," Letsholo warned, "get a friend who will watch over your clothes as you shower or you may come out and find your clothes have been stolen. I've warned you about the Mozambicans." Many did not have toiletries. Lindela provided inmates only with soap. The tuck shop opened at 9am and I bought myself a washing rag, a toothbrush, roll-on and soap. Ndlovu was kind enough to offer me his toothpaste. I reciprocated the kindness by offering my special soap. But by 10am Ndlovu's Lindela identity card was being taken away from him. It was repatriation day for Zimbabweans. Home affairs was looking for 800. They got them easily Ndlovu and I exchanged phone numbers. "Don't worry my friend," he said, "I'll be back soon. I just want to spend a week at home to sort out a few things. I'll definitely be back."

Back in our cell I found men sitting on beds watching TV. A Mozambican man was breaking another house rule. He held a pair of brown pants high and wanted cash offers for it. It was extremely cold and the main reason there were no takers was bankruptcy. Many had been arrested wearing short pants or light attire. The food was delicious, though. Everyone looked forward to the changing menu. For supper we ate hot pap and hot mincemeat mixed with carrots and potatoes, cabbage and four slices of brown bread with jam and butter, a cup of mageu and an apple! For breakfast we had brown porridge, mixed soup, six slices of brown bread with peanut butter and a cup of tea with milk. Two security guards stood at the door leading to the communal toilets, each with a roll of tissue paper to provide each person with a share of the roll. We were told we could play soccer if we liked, but it was too cold and the soccer pitch, like virtually every piece of ground, was also tarred! I hurriedly left Lindela after an old drinking mate who works for the Home Affairs Department discovered me. "Please Mr Makoe, we are not the bad guys. The bad guys are people who run Lindela. This is trouble. How could no one recognise who you are?" By that time I was out!

A staff member to be proud of - Charles Mogale, head of the Department of Home Affairs Lindela, is a highly-skilled, competent civil servant who believes in justice. He summoned me to his office for what he called "an interview", although it worked out as an interrogation. I had been arrested on the basis that I was a Botswana national who had become a South African by manying a local. Apparently, since I was now divorced, my South African status had been nullified. The next day my family brought my SA identity book. Mogale looked at it and contacted his head office. There I was, a bona fide South African, and my ID book also showed I carried a SA passport. "You were in Oshoek in December. You were flying in March. I don't understand," he said. "But I was born in Lobatse, Botswana, and also use a Botswana passport," I said. Matters were complicated by the fact that I was still married, according to the records, although I played the fool and insisted my wifewas the one who claimed we were divorced. I was worried when Mogale put a driver on standby to take me to the embassy of Botswana for identification. At that point, the man who was convinced I had been wrongly arrested announced "I am going to release you right away on what we call Jay 10 (I think he said). It gives you 21 days for those who claim you are illegal to provide proof. I'm also going to continue looking into this matter. In the event of any new developments, please call me on this number ... I'll also give you a call," he said. As for my alleged divorce, Mogale, a father figure to his subordinates, encouraged me to find a way to resolve my differences with my wife, "at least for the sake of the children". Now Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, here you have an employee to be proud of.