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Desperate Zimbabweans Head South

South Africa flooded by two million refugees from Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe
By IWPR Srdan
Before the train came to halt near Pretoria Station, Samson Ncube and dozens of other Zimbabwean illegal migrants bolted from the carriages in different directions into the surrounding bush, leaving police to vent their anger on the remaining refugees from South Africa's troubled northern neighbour across the River Limpopo.

Samson was unlucky. He broke his leg in several places as he leapt from the train removing illegal migrants back to Zimbabwe. His colleagues, who had all fled from Zimbabwe's political repression and rapidly deteriorating economic and social conditions, did not have time to wait and help him as they ran to avoid arrest.

As starvation tightens its grip on Zimbabwe, where the unemployment rate is now believed to have topped 80 per cent, Samson Ncube is just one of some two million Zimbabweans who in the past few years have made their way into South Africa in desperate search for a change of luck.

In the South African border town of Musina, on the Limpopo, which forms South Africa's 272-kilometre-long border with Zimbabwe, Captain Harrie Heslinga of the South African Police estimates that each week his men arrest some 500 to a thousand Zimbabweans trying to cross illegally into South Africa to escape their homeland's desperate and deepening poverty and find a job.

Heslinga estimates that perhaps another 10,000 Zimbabweans successfully cross the Limpopo each week at night, evading the South African police net. "It's getting worse and worse," he said. "Their country is in chaos, and they see South Africa as the promised land."

The Limpopo, made famous by Rudyard Kipling's description of it as "great, grey-green and greasy" and "set about with fever-trees", remains a wild frontier. The hordes of Zimbabweans escaping Mugabe's Zimbabwe risk flash floods, crocodiles, lions, hippos and elephants in their bid for freedom. Many get killed or swept away down river to Mozambique.

Zimbabweans staying illegally in South Africa have to avoid regular police sweeps. When arrested, they are detained at the Lindela Repatriation Camp, a former miners' hostel at Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg, where TB and other diseases are rife. From Lindela, they are deported by train to Zimbabwe in their hundreds, under the supervision of club-wielding police. Many like Samson Ncube dice with death by leaping from the deportation train to avoid return to Zimbabwe and the brutality of daily life there.

Several civic organisations in South Africa have called on the government to reconsider its policy towards Zimbabwean illegal immigrants. They argue that the present procedure is wasting taxpayers' money, not least because most deported Zimbabweans find ways of returning to South Africa within a short period of time.

Siduduzile Ndlovu is an illegal immigrant and 27-year-old mother of two who has entered South African illegally and been deported several times. "With things so bad at home, I find braving the crocodiles in the Limpopo and taking my chances with the South Africa security services a better option," said Siduduzile. "If I succeed I go straight to Johannesburg to find a job. If I get caught in a police sweep and deported, I take a rest and begin all over again."

Another Samson, Samson Matobo, from the southern Zimbabwe town of Masvingo, fled to South Africa after his house and job were destroyed last year in President Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Filth) in which hundreds of thousands of urban homes of people believed to be opposition supporters were destroyed by police, soldiers and youth militias loyal to the head of state.

Matobo was a security guard with a small African company in a Masvingo township. "The company I was guarding fell victim to Murambatsvina," Matobo told IWPR. "The operation was immediately closed by the police and I was forced out of my job. The next week my wife's small flea market stall was destroyed and looted by the army. The final straw came another two days later when the house we were renting was destroyed and we were left homeless.

“I decided to come to South Africa to look for a job to fend for my family and parents, but nothing is materialising. Mugabe has reduced us to beggars and it is difficult to return to Zimbabwe to face a starvation that is worse than here."

Edmund Moyo, a blind man from the eastern town of Mutare, told IWPR, “ I came to South Africa after my backyard cottage I was renting in Dangamvura [a Mutare township] was destroyed during Operation Murambatsvina. We are being harassed every day by the police [in Johannesburg] as we are trying to beg in the streets. I am sleeping in the streets with my wife and small kids and we are living from hand to mouth."

The South African media reported some 97, 000 Zimbabweans illegal immigrants were repatriated in 2005, making a total of about quarter of a million since the illegal immigration wave began in 2001. But another two million Zimbabweans, without legal papers and therefore confined to low paid jobs, if they can find any, are at large in the country as unregistered refugees.

Lovemore Vurayi is a deserter from Mugabe's youth militia, known in Zimbabwe as the Green Bombers, after their olive green uniforms. He told IWPR, "The situation at home is unbearable and I decided to jump from the moving train [repatriating illegal immigrants] as it was slowing down. I was injured but rescued by a Good Samaritan who took me to the hospital.

“Some who want to escape bribe the police guards. But you have to be careful while jumping from the train. Some who have jumped have been crushed to death and many are seriously injured. The Mugabe regime has made of our lives miserable and we are prepared to die to escape from starvation and repression."

Many illegal migrants interviewed by IWPR said they would rather jump off a moving train than be deported. One survivor on crutches, Temerai Sorai, said, "I felt I had to risk sacrificing my life because I can’t withstand the Mugabe regime at home and I have to escape by all means. I caught the police off guard and jumped from the train when it was approaching a station."

To prevent escapes, the police now force Zimbabweans being returned home to squat under carriage benches during the long journey to the border.

The refugees come faster than the South Africans can deport them. To speed up the deportation process, the Pretoria government began flying deportees into Zimbabwe, but the flights were abandoned after an outcry in South Africa that agents of Zimbabwe's much-feared Central Intelligence Organisation were arresting the people as they stepped from planes at Harare International Airport.

One of the ironies of this burgeoning problem for South Africa is that it is, to a large degree, a problem of its own making. President Thabo Mbeki has remained almost totally silent as Mugabe has plunged his own country into the abyss of economic and social collapse. Mbeki has refused to condemn Mugabe publicly or impose sanctions on him. It is widely surmised that Mbeki could bring Mugabe to his knees within weeks if essential electricity and petroleum supplies were severed.

Mbeki responds to criticism by saying that his own "quiet diplomacy" will eventually succeed in resolving the Zimbabwe crisis. But Gabriel Shumba, executive director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, which gives advice to Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa, said, "It is a tragedy of the highest order that South Africa's so-called quiet diplomacy ostensibly seeks to help Zimbabwe, yet Zimbabweans are dying because of its [South Africa's] inaction in tackling the human rights disaster in Zimbabwe."

Zakeus Chibaya is an IWPR contributor.

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