Many Zimbabwean refugees seek shelter at the Central Methodist church in Johannesburg’s CBD, sleeping on stairs and in passageways in the only place they can find free accommodation.
Up to 1 500 refugees living on the church premises were arrested in a late-night raid last week to round up illegal immigrants. Bishop Paul Verryn confirmed on Tuesday this week that, as far as he knew, all but 15 refugees had been released and cleared of all charges.
Verryn said that all the refugees has returned to the church and ”maybe even more have come in”.
The church was raided by members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) from Johannesburg, metro police officers, provincial reservists and immigration officers.
However, SAPS spokesperson Captain Bheki Mavundla could on Tuesday not confirm Verryn’s numbers. He said the raid was part of ”sustainable crime-combat operations” that were ”legally authorised to eradicate criminal elements from the district and building”.
Some of those who were arrested had their papers in order, while those who didn’t have were still trying to acquire them, according to Verryn.
Janet Love, national director of the Legal Resources Centre, did confirm that there were 14 detained refugees who were still trying to obtain bail at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. Love said that of all those who had been arrested, ”none have been charged so far, but 14 are outstanding for bail”.
”The police could not provide satisfactory evidence in the court, so the magistrate has remanded the 10 cases till [February 12]. This is so that the police can provide evidence for the bail application.”
The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) is at present investigating the conduct of police officers who took part in the raid.
Advocate Siphokazi Moleshe, who head the ICD in Gauteng, told the Mail & Guardian Online: ”I decided in the interest of the public to carry out the investigation into what the police allegedly did there during the raid, whether they conducted themselves in an appropriate manner or not. It is our own initiative and no one has formally laid a complaint.”
Verryn and several refugees have complained that they were abused and pushed around during last week’s raid. The bishop, speaking to the M&G Online last week, said he was verbally abused and shoved by police officers when he asked them why they were breaking down doors and assaulting refugees.
”I saw them assault people as they took them away in their vans,” the bishop said at the time. ”One of them kicked a bottle at me and pushed me. I am able to identify those who pushed me. One of them said I am a disgrace to the church for allowing these people to come in.”
He questioned why police had to break down doors when he had the keys. ”We can have the doors fixed,” he said, adding, though, that the church had not been desecrated. ”The most serious violation is of the people — that is the desecration I find worrying.”
Many of the refugees were asleep when the raid got under way. Elizabeth, a Zimbabwean refugee staying at the church, said: ”I was hit and kicked around, but I was not arrested. It was very traumatic and I am still recovering from it.”
Police are expected to continue such raids regularly, Mavundla said. ”The raids will continue over time, until the area is safe again.”
Verryn insisted that the church would continue to be a refuge not only for Zimbabweans, but also for any South Africans without shelter.
Meanwhile, Gauteng community safety minister Firoz Cachalia will meet police officers who were involved in the raid, his office said on Wednesday. This is part of an agreement reached at a meeting on Tuesday between Cachalia, Verryn, the Legal Resource Centre, the station commissioner of the Johannesburg Central police station and the provincial police commissioner.
At the meeting it was agreed that the Johannesburg station commissioner would meet the leaders of the Central Methodist church to work out specific details about how to improve communication and relations between the police, the congregants of the church and the broader community in the area.
The provincial commissioner has also undertaken to investigate thoroughly all of the allegations against the police officers who took part in the raid, and take action where necessary.
Following the meeting, Cachalia expressed his ”deep concern” at serious allegations against members of the police.
”In order to be effective in fighting crime, all our police officers have to uphold the Constitution and behave in a professional manner at all times. We all agree that the police have an important role to play in fighting crime, protecting people and enforcing the laws of our country, which includes the immigration laws,” he said.
Additional reporting by Percy Zvomuya