Lindela: 'My week in hell'

Joe Ncube, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker, spent a week in the Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp. This is his story:

“People die every day here.” This warning, from a Burundian I met on my first day in Lindela detention centre in Krugersdorp, came as no surprise.

I’m a Zimbabwean who has been living in South Africa for the past six years—and the centre’s reputation is legendary among us—the amakwerekwere (foreigners).

For illegals it is the first stop on a round-trip journey back into South Africa. But for legal foreigners like me, who have asylum-seeker status, it is where we learn what it feels like to be a victim of this phenomenon called xenophobia.

The day my luck ran out was September 28 when I was travelling to work in a taxi that got stopped at a road block.

I was immediately identified by the police as a foreigner. Maybe it is because I am darker skinned, or maybe because I replied in English, and not in Zulu, that I had no ID on me.

I was told to get into the back of the police truck where I joined more than 100 people. There were children, women, men and old people. But I knew I was better off than many of them—I had my asylum papers with me.

But the police said: “No we don’t need an asylum papers, you must have a South African ID.” I asked how they expected me to have a South African ID when I was not a citizen, but they were not interested. It was as if their orders were exclusively that all foreigners must be arrested and taken to Lindela.

I also have a work permit, but it would not have made a difference because the police were arresting anyone foreign—regardless of whether they had papers or not.

The fear in the truck was tangible on the journey there, with children crying and women clutching their meagre possessions. The truth is that many Zimbabweans give other names so they can get back into the country. We all know how to get around the system, but this time I had no reason to lie. I was a legitimate immigrant. What could possibly happen to me?

The procedure on arrival at Lindela is that men and women are separated in a courtyard. Security guards then do roll-call and allocate prisoners according to nationality. Our names are called out by the detention centre’s home affairs officials to identify our immigration status. But we arrived late that day and the officials had closed their offices—which meant we all had to stay until they returned the next morning.

My first impression of the dreaded place was that it was a prison. We were searched for any cellphones, cameras, pens and notebooks, and warned that we were not allowed to take these to the cells.

But the fear started clawing at my gut when I realised that I would be spending my first night in a cell with 50 other men.

I did not know what to expect or how to behave. But I decided to keep my mouth shut and watch what happened. I remembered my friend Edwin Ndlovu, who died at the age of 24, just a week after he was released from Lindela. His cause of death was unknown, but his nose was bleeding and he was coughing before his death. I was curious about why he died and what happened to him. Was there TB or other illnesses in the air at Lindela?

Dinner was a plate of anaemic cabbage and pap that looked like it had been cooked days before. I refused to eat, remembering tales of food poisoning and noticing that other inmates looked unhealthy.

The time for sleeping grew closer. We were given a blanket each and divided into different cells. I wasn’t expecting a five-star hotel, but I was not prepared for the conditions of cell number 29 where I was taken. Picture about 54 men all crammed into a tiny cell with double bunks and room for only 24 people. But the putrid smell of a blocked shower and toilet overrode my anxiety about where I was going to sleep.

An elderly Zimbabwean, who seemed to command respect in the cell, ejected a guy from the Côte d’Ivoire from a bunk bed for me. Lying on the bunk with the smell of smoke and the soft sound of cards being played I wondered what I should do. My girlfriend could bring my work permit in the morning, but I knew that this was the place where Edwin had died and wanted to stay longer to see what really happens to us foreigners in Lindela.

I could not sleep because there was an old man who was coughing and whose nose was bleeding. The elderly Zimbabwean called the security guard to take him to the clinic. Thirty minutes later they brought him back. It did not seem as if he was any better.

The next day I heard he had died. How will his family know what happened to him? Where will he be buried? I thought about how my mother would feel if she never heard from me again. Could I die like this—having been persecuted into coming to South African by Zanu-PF, just to rot in this hole? I felt like everything was for nothing because the only decision left was where I preferred to die — in Zimbabwe or in Lindela.

I tried to find out what it is that happens in Lindela that causes people to die here or get sick. I sat with three South African boys who were mistaken for foreigners because they were found in the street and did not have IDs.

In the courtyard, where most of the foreigners sit around to pass the time, I noticed that dagga was openly sold for R5 a bankie (a packet of dagga).

I phoned my girlfriend. She was afraid I would be kept in Lindela indefinitely. This is what happened to Eugene Makwinja, a former colleague who I met on the second day there. He had been in Lindela for three months and had no way of knowing why he was being detained instead of being sent to Zimbabwe.

“If I had R900 to pay for a bribe I could get out of here,” he said. Looking around I began to realise that there weren’t many Chinese and Indians. “That is because the Chinese and Indians can afford to pay to get out of here, even the Nigerians,” Makwinja said.

If you are a foreigner and you don’t have the money to pay bribes you go back to your own country. Many Nigerians pretend to be Zimbabweans because it takes three months to get back to Nigeria; but Zimbabweans and Mozambicans leave every month and it is easier to get back to South Africa across a river than across a continent. Those too poor to afford bribes get deported and make their way back, even if it means jumping off a moving train.

Ishmael, one of the two Malawian brothers who slept on the beds next to mine, had been living in Lindela for two months because the train to Malawi was not yet full enough to warrant a trip. His brother was sick during the stay and I later heard he had died when he reached home. We had spent time talking about our countries and what it felt like living in South Africa.

I knew that I could not live in this place for two or three weeks, having two meals a day, being beaten up, sleeping in a cell with blocked toilets. On Saturday and Sunday the electricity was cut and when there is no electricity there is no water.

You are left alone most of the time unless you piss-off security guards, as did one of the foreigners who lost his identity tag (which we all had to carry). They beat him with sjamboks until he bled from his mouth. It was a lesson that made us feel powerless.

We knew that there was no one here who cared whether we lived or died. No high commissioner from our country fighting for our release, no lawyers to sue the security guards for torture or abuse.

The clinic is a joke: there is only Panado available, even for the most severe pains. Most of the foreigners who are sick are left to rot on bunks until it is too late to save their lives.

Just when I thought I would never see my baby or my girlfriend again, I was released—a week after my arrest.

Maybe the reason why the South African government treats foreigners so badly in Lindela is to ensure that we never want to come back to this country. But most of the people who stay in Lindela will come back: they have no other option.

Ultimately I blame the South African government, which claims to fight for the rights of all human beings. We are not animals. Even though we Zimbabweans work among South Africans I always feel like a prisoner here.

When President Thabo Mbeki talks about Zimbabwe and says we should solve conflict in the region I want him to go to Lindela and see how South Africans treat other Africans. What is the New Partnership for Africa’s development if other Africans cannot be treated with dignity and respect ? As a foreigner I feel that some South Africans are too proud of their nation, but too blind and forgetful to remember that it is the same amakwerekwere who you scorn that allowed you to flee your apartheid government.

I never heard a South African exile saying there was a hell like Lindela waiting for them.

As told to Nawaal Deane

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