'We have no hope'
Stranded in the belly of an underground parking garage in central Johannesburg, just a stone’s throw from Constitution Hill, groups of men huddle in corners talking quietly. They are eating their only meal of the day, soup and bread delivered by the Methodist Church soup kitchen.
Inside the garage, which they must vacate between 6am and 6pm every-day, blankets line the walls, surrounded by small bags of personal belongings.
The cold concrete offers little protection from the winter cold.
Charles Mamombe, of Masvingo in Zimbabwe, has been in South Africa since early last year.
In a tired voice, he says his many problems stem from his inability to get the necessary papers to enable him to work in South Africa, despite being a qualified fitter and turner.
His experience with the Department of Home Affairs in Pretoria has tested his endurance to the limit. “If you have a lot of cash in your pocket, you can be processed in a matter of hours. “I am surviving from handouts, from the churches.”
If he wants a second meal for the day he must go to another soup kitchen, run by the Salvation Army. Mamombe, who has a wife and two children still in Zimbabwe, says he left because of “some political problems”.
Like many fellow Zimbabweans he is forced into poorly paid jobs with little or no protection from the law. They have few possessions and fewer rights.
“Yes, they can employ me as an assistant builder, but those jobs are hard to come by â€¦ and they are paying about R15 a day, which is hardly, hardly enough for any living.”
Operation Murambatsvina has devastated his family and friends, so he can’t go home. He hopes “something will crop up” that he can use to help the people back home.
The horror that is Zimbabwe is not only experienced somewhere beyond the Limpopo river. The streets of central Johannesburg at night are full of desperate, homeless people who have fled Zimbabwe.
In the kitchen of the Methodist Church’s emergency facility for refugees, Oliver Mtukudzi blares from a telephone answering-machine speaker. Like the tired distortion of the sound, weary men emerge from the underground garage to share pots of sadza and to gather around the only source of heat in the building.
Journalist Ezekiel* was sued under harsh press laws and forced to flee Zimbabwe. His company did not have the funds to fight the criminal defamation suit. “They were claiming about almost Z$30-million.” He is trying to freelance but “I don’t have any equipment, like Internet, phone and other things”. He too blames his difficulty in making a living on corruption in home affairs. “You are not able to get any refugee papers without passing through those middlemen.”
There is not much in the way of help for the growing number of immigrants. A handful of churches and NGOs provides emergency assistance.
Elinor Sisulu, of Crisis in Zimbabwe, stresses that services for refugees are under severe pressure, because of insufficient funds. Currently no official facility exists to house, assist and supply medical and food aid to refugees, says Methodist Bishop Paul Verryn.
There’s a sense of despondency in the cramped church. Lines of clothing hang from windows in an outside corridor as strains of a piano are heard in the distance.
Not all refugees are escaping political hardship. Saxon*, from Glenview, says “some people can tell you they ran away from the MDC and Zanu-PF, its not the truth, people came here to look for some greener pastures”.
In another hushed conversation, a former policeman tells how he fled after clashing with war veterans and being court-martialled after being sighted at a Movement for Democratic Change rally.
He was sentenced to two months’ punishment at a military police centre and then posted to the most remote police station. Fearing he would be tracked down and killed he skipped the country and has not spoken to his family since the recent demolitions.
Twenty-two-year-old Charles* from Harare says: “If the international community does not intervene in Zimbabwe now, they want to wait for another Rwanda and another Burundi, another Angola; that’s how it started, people complaining, no one doing anything about it, until people got desperate, a war started, and that war was genocide. And no one could stop it.”
Verryn says: “I don’t think the churches are quite frankly coping at the moment. We do have the capacity. But we do need to organise ourselves much more carefully. I think that there’s a much greater political will to do this at the moment.”
Recent contact between the President Thabo Mbeki’s office and the South African Council of Churches was a start but louder encouraging voices are needed to nudge government and civil society together, sooner.
A return home to Zimbabwe is uppermost in the minds of many refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants who remain stranded in South Africa. For some, such as former liberation soldier Lester*, this dream has given way to despair. He shrugs his shoulders and says in Shona, “taperwa [we have no hope]”.
* Identities have been withheld