Mandebvu, in central Durban, is home to 55 Zimbabwean men who pay R30 a day in rent to live there, sharing five bathrooms and seven toilets.
It is not the most attractive of living environments. Brick-red shipping containers stacked one on top of the other line a dark passage that leads to a house. The tiny Zimbabwe Spaza Shop attached to the containers sells everything from Coke to sanitary pads. There is washing hung on a line in the courtyard and dozens of flies circle the entrance to the house.
As I chatted to China Ngubane, a human rights activist who is also from Zimbabwe, one by one its inhabitants emerged from the house, eager to relate their allegations of abuse at the hands of members of the South African Police Service (SAPS). They were reluctant to be named, fearing reprisals.
According to them, police raids occur almost daily. "We're surprised they haven't come today," one of them said. "Today's our lucky day."
Ngubane said that during the raids "the police have a tendency to make them lie on the floor, holding them down with their feet. Or they make them put their hands up against a wall and search their pockets. Then they put some of them into their vans, but before reaching the police station they say, 'if you want to go home, make a plan,' meaning giving them money, which they already know you have from searching your pockets," he said.
"These raids happen regularly – sometimes two or three times a week – and Zimbabweans are made to pay. They do not just happen here. They also happen at other balloons, the structures in which a few Zimbabweans live together."
Make a plan
One man said he was ordered into a police van with two of his friends during a raid the evening before. "When we were in the van, they said 'make a plan', but we didn't have any money. So they brought us back here and some of the guys who were standing outside got R300 from a Zimbabwean taxi driver. We gave it to them and they left."
Ngubane said such experiences were common and not confined to men who did not possess the necessary documentation. "Some have their documents in order; others don't. Once some police realise you're an immigrant, to them it means you have no rights and you are victimised by the very people who should be protecting you."
Another man added: "If you're properly documented, they'll hand you a gun and say you're in a possession of an illegal firearm. And if you try to resist there'll be major issues, so you don't." He said police officers regularly confiscated expensive items such as laptops and cellphones during raids, because the migrants could not produce receipts for them.
The latest trend, they claim, involves some policemen handing the men small quantities of dagga and instructing them to plead guilty to possession charges.
"They then prepare a docket to this effect and if in court you plead not guilty, you'll have to go through a lengthy procedure in order to be released. So you just plead guilty and you're fined R200. They follow all the legal procedures for this – it's because they do nothing all day and they want to do something to show they are busy," said one man.
A leader of the province's Congolese community said that immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo living in the Point Road area had reported similar incidents. "A police van will pull up, they'll call you and search you and then ask you to get in. Once you're inside they'll say: 'Make a plan. If you don't give me money, I'll take you to the police station.' It has become a habit of theirs."
KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Vincent Ndunge said the immigrants' claims were unfounded. "I don't think they have any basis for making these claims. There's no truth in those accusations. Yes, the SAPS conducts joint operations with other organisations, like the departments of foreign affairs and home affairs, wherein those who are illegal immigrants are arrested and deported back to their countries of residence. But why would any policeman try to bribe someone who has no money?"
He added: "If they have such claims, they must come forward and report them. We are there to listen to the plight of different communities. But they can't be faceless and make such allegations. To date, we have never received a single such complaint they just hop on to public platforms and create a hullabaloo."
However, Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said he had been reliably informed that official investigations were under way.
"There are a few places in Durban that seem to be easy pickings for police shakedowns, including residential buildings, the Point areas, especially around The Wheel – now called China City – as well as Albert Park, the Workshop mall near city hall and Durban Station on Umgeni Road. Our sources report regular incidents of extortion by Durban police at these places."