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Spotlight on South Africa and Zimbabwean Refugees

Tuesday, December 16, 2008
By Fr. Gary Smith, S.J.

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Limpopo project is located in Makhado, South Africa, a small town about 45 miles south of the Zimbabwe border and the South African town of Messina. We are on the outskirts of Makhado, located in a converted one-story warehouse, among blocks of industrial buildings (fuel depots, grain mills, machine shops, slaughter houses, scrap yards etc.).  We see 100-150 Zimbabwean refugees daily, all on their way to somewhere in South Africa, all choosing to flee their tortured country.

The project is composed of eight staff: five lay South Africans (one of whom is the Director), two lay Zimbabwean refugees and me. Four men, four women. They are dedicated, smart, funny and personalize the JRS mandate to accompany and serve refugees and to advocate for them. It is a close group. When I arrived they asked – even those who were not Catholic — if I could offer Mass each day before we began seeing people. And I do. The staff has been for me one of the special and unexpected gifts of this assignment.

When we counsel with each individual refugee we explore how we can help, depending on each person’s predicament.  Such help takes several forms: 1) transportation to other locations in South Africa where they have a promise of a welcome and a potential job from a cousin or brother or sister or family friend; 2) food; 3) clothing and blankets; 4) assisting with accommodation expenses for a month with a focus on women, children and the elderly. Often people just need to talk.

Zimbabwe’s Situation

Zimbabwe’s government marches into meltdown, drinking the blood of its people on the way. The opposition party, which actually won the majority vote in the spring elections, is seen by the government with a barely hidden malice, like a concealed blade in the sleeve. No love lost between these guys. Negotiations between the antagonists on the formation of a unity government continually flounder in a sea of recrimination.  As the situation deteriorates the country’s economy has fallen off a cliff, sanitation and health systems are collapsing; cholera is on the move—indeed now leaking into South Africa —  and there is unrest in the army. In the end, of course, all this madness and power grabbing is inflicted on the people. As the African proverb goes: “when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”

The Refugees

And so, across the southern border of Mother Zimbabwe, her children flee, scattered like sparks before the wind. After obtaining their asylum papers in Messina (we are told 250 such documents are issued each day), the refugees proceed toward potential job locations in South Africa. Many of course don’t bother with the proper papers and therefore risk deportation. Since the government began to fail hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries, with the majority coming to South Africa. The Makhado JRS office is located on their way. There are JRS urban offices, several hundred miles south of us, in Pretoria and Johannesburg.

More than 11,000 have passed through our office since April, 2008. Approximately 90% of the people we see are between 15 and 30 and of that total the ratio would be 3.5 men to each woman. They are, to name a few, students, farm workers, teachers, chefs, painters, bricklayers, drivers, engineers, state employees, miners, plumbers, stockyard keepers, small business men and women, soldiers and artists. All have left loved ones behind in the hope of securing a job and the capacity to send money back to the remaining family who are living in the jaws of desperation. They come tired, dirty, hungry, broke, disheartened, and apprehensive; most possess only the clothes are their back, an asylum document and a few precious contact phone numbers. On the flight south they are frequently victims of thugs at the border who steal their possessions and money. Many refugee women are raped by these same stinking human beings.  Monsters. As we listen to people in the counseling sessions I am aware that the inner landscape of many is the jagged terrain of a broken heart. There are moments when the words of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness emerge in me, a dissonant and unrelenting mantra: “The horror, the horror.”

No one should have to live like this.

  • One day we had a raid by the South African Home Affairs police. About 10 police cars and wagons, with a number of snotty, self-important police busting people without “proper” papers.  A few refugees fled. All were jittery and fearful.  One of our staff, a veteran—and victim--of apartheid days, along with our Director, was fuming and disgusted by the whole process: no warning, strong- arming and piling people into wagons.  Our Director spent lots of time advocating for a change of tactics and she was successful.
  • A mother and her ten-year old daughter arrived; both were crippled. The mother walked on the knees of deformed legs. The daughter had a spinal ailment. They literally leaned on each other.  It is the children that break me. We assisted them with food and make arrangements for accommodation in a nearby township.  As they left, I thought:  they are like Siamese twins. Connected. But more beyond the physical: it was the connection of mother and daughter. I was happy we could temporarily help them; but, oh, the endless struggle ahead.
  • There was a nineteen year old, the eldest child in his family trying to make it, a stranger in a strange land. He finally broke down in the interview: Deep tears. “I just don’t know what to do; I just don’t know what to do.” It is hard to imagine the pressure he was feeling: he had to leave his family, he had to find work, he had to support his Zimbabwean family; and he had to survive. We talked with him, gave him temporary help and sought to keep the storm that was closing in on him from breaching his shores.