Over a month ago, a wave of xenophobic violence highlighted the plight of Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa. Fleeing an exhausted country held under the iron grasp of Robert Mugabe, they are the target of discrimination and violence on the part of native South Africans.
For these political and economic refugees, there is nowhere to go. Our reporters met them in Johannesburg, in a several-storey building nicknamed “Harare”.
So far, close to 3,000 Zimbabweans have sought refuge in this city-centre building. A former public servant, Peter Nyapetwa explains why he left his country. “All the campaign organizers who were supervising the ballot in the traditional strongholds of the ruling ZANU-PF party were later pursued by the authorities. Every one of them! Their thinking was that if they’d lost the election then it must’ve been because we cheated! Hence, we had no choice but to flee”.
At the heart of Johannesburg – South Africa’s financial capital – the Methodist Church has become a haven for refugees. Bishop Paul Verryn welcomes all those who flee Robert Mugabe’s regime. “Here, every single refugee has his own history,” he explains. “While they now sleep on the ground, many Zimbabweans can boast of an honorable career behind them.”
A wave of brutal xenophobic riots erupted in Johannesburg in mid-May, leaving some sixty dead and tens of thousands homeless. Accused of taking native jobs, the numerous Zimbabwean population was particularly targeted during the attacks.
“We need to find a solution so that those who can find work back home may return there,” says Beatrice Billiat, a former secretary, and target of violence. “We need to go back to Zimbabwe. We are not welcome here. I hope the crisis can be resolved at home”. She seems to have lost all hope in politicians. Unlike many other exiles, she won’t go to meet the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as he pays a visit to the local Zimbabwean community.
A former captain of the presidential guard, Aaron Makaze opted to desert the Zimbabwean army since he sympathized with the opposition. He was then tortured and compelled to leave his family behind as he escaped to South Africa. “They are looking for me everywhere. They also went to see my wife. It was back in April. They tortured her with boiling plastic. When she was taken into hospital, they left her four days without medicine… I am very anxious for my wife and son. You know, to have to leave one’s family to come and sleep here on the floor is truly terrible.”
Shocked by the violence, the former land of Apartheid is gradually awaking to the plight of Zimbabwean refugees. There are now three million of them in South Africa, equivalent to a third of Zimbabwe’s population.