On the wall at the entrance bold letters proclaim: “Lindela Repatriation Centre” and “Bosasa Operation”. I walk through the gate into the sheltered open space.
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Inside, there is a canteen, which doubles as a spaza shop. There is also an office for the security officers. The door is closed.
The centre is run by Bosasa, the private security company contracted by the home affairs department. In the open space, two women in their early 30s are seated a few steps away from the security guards’ office. They say they have come to visit their friend from Nigeria who was arrested a week ago for failing to show the cops his passport, which he apparently had lost. They are originally from Zimbabwe, but now live in Johannesburg.
The other visitor says he is from the Free State. He is here to check whether a family friend from Lesotho, who was arrested in Bethlehem recently, has been detained here. He later finds out the man is not there and leaves.
I am here undercover. I want to speak to detainees about the conditions inside the cells and their complaints about being detained for more than the prescribed 120 days period as stipulated by the Immigration Act.
At least six investigations conducted since 2000 by different organisations have found detainees have been kept at the centre for more than 120 days.
No one to see
I am in the company of a human rights activist from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Lukamba. We are here for the same reason and have a common snag: we have no one to see.
The activist strikes up a conversation with the Zimbabwean women. He tells them that we are from the organisation representing the rights of the migrants, and then asks to go inside with them when they visit their friend. They agree.
One woman suggests I should go together with the Free State man to avoid being refused permission to get inside by the guards “because we are too many”. I concur. The Free State man, who is within earshot, nods his head in agreement.
More visitors come through to the centre after 30 minutes. A skinny, dark-skinned man tells me he is a Malawian. He has come to see his nephew whose passport had expired and he had failed to renew it. I change my mind and ask to go with him to see his 31-year-old nephew.
After an hour and 30 minutes, a guard opens the door, stands at the entrance and says: “You can now start to queue.” He goes back inside the office and closes the door.
Two women with babies on their backs join our queue.
First in the door
The activist and one woman from Zimbabwe are the first to go through. The other woman can’t join them because no more than two visitors may enter the office at a time.
As soon as the officer on duty is done with one visitor, she knocks on the window to signal that the next person may enter.
After 15 minutes or so, she knocks on the window again.
Then there is another knock on the window.
It is now my turn. I walk inside with the skinny man from Malawi. We tell the guard that we are here to see the same detainee, who has been here since August.
Security cameras are directed at the various wards and areas within Lindela. (Gianluigi Fuercia, AFP)
The guard looks at us curiously and asks for our identity documents. I hand over my ID to the guard. She writes down my ID number, my names and surname on an A3 book. She asks me the name of the person I have come to visit. “Hope Ngoma,” I say. “He is from Malawi.”
I have memorised the names the Malawian man told me earlier. She writes down the information I give. She is done with me and hands back my ID book. She jots down the particulars of the Malawian man from his passport.
The fellow carries a bulky khaki schoolbag. We walk to the next guard behind the counter. He asks to search the schoolbag. There is a black jersey, a two-litre bottle of orange juice, hair clippers and a plastic bag full of toilet rolls. The guard takes the clippers and registers them in a separate A3 book.
There is the third guard. He calls us one by one to a small room inside the office. I go first. He asks me to lift my arms. He quickly searches my pockets and pats my waist. I have left my phone in the car, but those who have theirs go to the fourth guard who keeps them. He takes the particulars of their phones and locks them in a cabinet.
We join the other visitors.
One of the guards walks out with a piece of paper with our names on it and asks us to follow him. We walk with him to the direction of the detainees’ cells.
We follow him to a building and into an open space with no chairs. There is a long wooden counter with metal mesh dividing it into two rooms.
On the other side of the barrier is another security guard.
The guard who came with us hands over the piece of paper with names of the detainees to his colleague on the other side.
We wait for 15 minutes.
Situation ‘not good’
Detainees walk through the door. Ngoma is one of them. We come closer and exchange greetings.
He is a short man who, I am told, completed his Grade 10 in Malawi. He keeps eye contact as he speaks through the metal mesh, his hands on the counter.
He tells me that the situation inside is not good.
“The way we are treated inside is bad. We have been kept here for a long time. I have been here for a month, but there are others who have been here a long time before. We are overcrowded in a cell – I think we are 35 in one cell,” he says angrily.
“All the Malawians have started a hunger strike because of the way we are being treated.”
As more detainees come through people in the room start to raise their voices as they struggle to hear each other.
Rapula Moatshe is the Mail & Guardian’s Eugene Saldanha fellow for social justice reporting.