Money, former inmates of the Lindela Repatriation Centre say, is what separated them from their compatriots also in South Africa illegally.
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“The taxi stopped at the roadblock, the other people started taking out their money,” said a Zimbabwean now returned to Harare, in a telephonic interview this week. “The police took everyone to the side and asked for papers. I said ‘I don’t have an ID’, and he [the policeman] said, ‘What about the kind of paper you keep in your wallet?'”
Allegations of corruption are commonplace among those who have been deported, so the stories that inmates swap – always secondhand – are the really ludicrous ones: the woman who got off after she showed a policeman a photo of her daughter and offered her to him in marriage, and the mechanic who regained his freedom in exchange for fixing a skorokoro (a jalopy).
Although these legends clearly grow in the telling over the weeks and sometimes months that the detainees spend in Lindela, many former inmates take umbrage when you question their veracity.
“You look how many Nigerians there are [in Lindela],” a Malawi national said. “You know how many there are in Jo’burg. Why is there only a couple of rooms of Nigerians in that place? Where are the people from Pakistan? The countries with the money – you never see people from there.”
First taste of detention
Those unable to prove they are in South Africa legally, given away by an accent or a vaccination scar, get their first taste of detention.
Some say they had valid permits, which were destroyed by the police – claims that are impossible to verify – and some admit that they entered South Africa illegally in search of opportunities.
But once they are in the back of the police truck, it matters little.
In the vehicle, say detainees who have been through the system in the past five years, everyone is equally scared. Even those who do not come from countries where police brutality goes unchecked have heard stories about the South African police. And since the massacre of the miners at Marikana in 2012, the fear is even more real.
But the police ride up front and those arrested are left to their own devices in the back.
That ends when the truck reaches the police station, where all the inmates interviewed are initially held. Their stories range from being roughed up by the police to being robbed by jailed South Africans in overcrowded cells; from demands for sexual favours to the soliciting of bribes in return for contact with families.
Waiting for transport
Although none of the inmates knew it at the time, their sojourn in police holding cells was where the legal system first clearly failed them. They are supposed to be held for a maximum of 48 hours before being taken to Lindela but many say they spent a week or more waiting for transport.
Lindela is if not the promised land then at least a place with better facilities – better food, more room and fewer hardened criminals.
In other ways, though, Lindela is worse. On arrival, many inmates are separated from what cash they have (although some say they had no difficulty smuggling in money) and their cellphones (although some say they had no trouble taking in their cellphones).
But most disturbing are the stories of those who end up in Lindela for a long, long time.
An illegal Zimbabwean immigrant enters the Lindela Repatriation Centre. One of the inmates’ greatest fears is they will be kept there indefinitely. (Gianluigi Guercia, AFP)
“You hear about people being there for months and months and you don’t believe it. Then you meet someone who has been there for a year,” said a former inmate. “You start worrying you’ll never get out. You get angry about that.”
When there is “trouble” – a word that covers everything from hunger strikes to full-blown riots – former detainees blame officials and guards.
Rank and order
The different nationalities, they say, congregate together quickly, and the rooms, with 28 bunks each, tend to have older, respected inmates in charge.
There are disagreements that end in scuffles, with the guards spread too thinly to intervene, but the groups tend to be self-regulating.
But, when people are denied due process, or pushed around by “disrespectful” guards, tempers get out of hand and frustration boils over.
That frustration is often born out of simple complaints rather than out of the bureaucracy of deportation. For example, when money to buy basic toiletries runs out; the knowledge that lunch/dinner served in the early afternoon, with an outsized helping of bread, must last until breakfast; and the sheer boredom in a place where books are resolutely banned.
“You are glad to be out of Lindela,” said a Mozambican, back in Johannesburg after being deported. “I promise you, I don’t want to go back there again.”
Next time, said the man, he would have the money on hand to make sure he does not return.
Repatriation centre seems structurally allergic to facts
Determining the truth – or otherwise – concerning complaints from Lindela inmates about everything from severe beatings to mere technical infringements of their rights is a problem that has, for years, flummoxed organisations with experience in everything from notorious prisons to war zones. Lindela, it seems, is structurally allergic to facts.
“Adverse incentives exist on both sides,” wrote Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron after a visit to Lindela in July 2012, a visit that ended in a near riot. “On one hand, because detainees are kept short-term, there is little risk that complaints will be treated as credible and effectively followed up. But, conversely, there is equally no disincentive to fabrication.”
In prisons, Cameron observed, both inmates and guards are protected. There are complaint processes that end in punishment for “either perpetrators or those who lay false complaints”. At Lindela, on the other hand, there is “no long-term institutional or social disincentive against fabricating complaints”.
At the same time guards, managers and staff can rest safe in the knowledge that nothing short of a dead body is likely to see action. The police – and in some cases the lower courts – are dismissive about complaints by alleged illegal immigrants. Guards at Lindela have nearly total control over communication with the outside world and have been known to actively frustrate attempts to reach inmates. People at Lindela by definition have little money or social connections in South Africa and some are not proficient in a South African language.
Once they are gone, former inmates can be impossible to reach, even if the system works in their favour.
“We have no information regarding his whereabouts or wellbeing,” wrote Lawyers for Human Rights about a 2009 case of a Congolese man whose deportation had been declared illegal, “and we have been unable to notify him of the ruling ordering his return.”
Bosasa not in the line of fire
Bosasa, the private company that manages the Lindela Repatriation Centre, has a long and fraught history with government tenders, the law and the media – especially the M&G. But on Lindela, at least, it has never been directly in the firing line.
The facilities and fleet management company has been investigated for allegations of bribing its way into lucrative tenders with the correctional services department and has been accused of black empowerment fronting. In 2012 it took the M&G to court in a defamation claim, demanding the names of sources – a case that set a precedent for the protection of such sources when the appeal to the Constitutional Court was rejected.
But although it is responsible for security, cleaning, healthcare and the kitchens at Lindela – all areas that detainees have complaints about – Bosasa has not been a direct target of the many reports, investigations and court cases Lindela has generated. Instead, various courts and organisations have held that, although the department of home affairs can outsource the running of the centre, it cannot be released of its duties and obligations, and remains responsible for any breaches or shortcomings at Lindela.