Making a Run for the Border

IT WAS A STIFLING 35 degrees when we arrived in Musina, the kind of dry, dusty heat that makes every movement slow, even when you think you should be in a hurry. But then there is no need to dawdle in a border town.

It was my first time in Musina and Grace’s* fourth. The first time she crossed the border was in January 2002. She was 16 years old and her half-sister, Thuli, who had arrived in Johannesburg a few years before, organised a taxi-driver friend to fetch Grace from their cousin’s house in Bulawayo and ferry her across with other Zimbabweans, some legal, some illegal.

She had no papers then. No birth certificate, no ID, no passport. Her grandmother, who raised her in a dusty rural village in Matabeleland after her mother died when she was nine, her father following her mother to the grave a year later, didn’t really see the need for official documents such as birth certificates or ID books, much less passports.

When Thuli offered to look after Grace, her grandmother packed up the few things the teenager owned and sent Grace on her way. “You’ll get pregnant here,” she said by way of letting go and crossed her fingers for better things.

Grace, a domestic worker in Johannesburg, is the responsible type. She is basically law-abiding, respectful of authority and rightly scared of the South African police, as much as any Zimbabwean without papers – and some of those with—should be.

Although the department of home affairs implemented the Zimbabwean documentation process between September and December last year, it has been seeped in confusion for many.

The department, which expected to process a good number of what has been estimated to be the 1,5-million Zimbabweans living in South Africa in just three months, shifted and changed procedures as it went along to meet its gargantuan task. But those who work with migrants say the time frame seemed set up for failure, or at least to exclude the majority of those whom it was meant to serve.

The department has, meanwhile, claimed victory, saying it has accepted 275 762 applications and will meet its July deadline to finalise decisions. But for many of those who have applied, their status continues to be wrought with uncertainty.

Grace has been anxious about her documents for years. But it wasn’t until her daughter was born in September last year that she got the fear. She and her husband, also a Zimbabwean, took the birth certificate issued at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital and went to home affairs to register their baby.

The official at the Harrison Street office took the form with her address, phone number, the number from her fraudulently obtained ID book and that of her husband’s and threw the documents back at her.

“Go away,” the official growled as she waved them out of the office. “We’ll check your ID.” The official, who refused to register the child, had to have known what was coming. A week later the documentation process was announced. And that was when Grace really began to panic. In October she left for Zimbabwe to get a passport. Like many Zimbabweans, Grace knew quite well that the Zimbabwean consulate in Johannesburg wouldn’t process their papers in time.

In Bulawayo it took nearly two months and R6 000, enough for travel, express passports, birth certificates and a bit for “cold drink” for some select officials.

She came back in early December and headed for home affairs, where she declared her South African ID book – which came courtesy of a corrupt Mpumalanga home affairs official—and her new Zimbabwean passport, with a letter, signed by her employer, and a copy of her employer’s ID, saying she had held a regular job as a domestic worker since 2005.

African Centre for Migration and Society
In return she was given a photocopied receipt, with no instruction from the department other than that she would hear from it. Grace’s passport was left untouched, as was the expiration date of her 90-day visa: February 11 2011.

It was on February 10 that I dropped Grace off at the border just next to the string of food stalls and the taxi rank, unsure of what would happen. She assured me that her brother-in-law had crossed a few months ago and got his three months’ visa, just as he has done every three months for the past two years. Besides, we both knew that trying to get a straight answer out of home affairs wasn’t going to happen.

A study on the documentation process by the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), which was released in January this year, found out what Grace and her compatriots already know: that everything from the application process to the department’s own communication on the issue was mired in confusion from the start.

At the Mail & Guardian we had difficulty following the story. Crucial communication to employers letting them know that they would not be penalised if they signed a letter stating they employed an illegal was released weeks into the process. Although the department eventually spelled out relaxed documentation requirements for work, study and business, no specific criteria were put forth on who would be approved and who would not based on what they had submitted.

As the ACMS report notes, although at the beginning of the process you had to have a valid Zimbabwean passport to apply, by the end of it any documentation was accepted. It was a commendable gesture on the part of the department to recognise the hurdles of those who wanted to register, but it came at the last minute and most didn’t hear of it until it was too late.

The documentation required, the ACMS found, shifted every few weeks or appeared to depend on the individual department office or official who was seen. The only thing that was steadfast was the December 31 deadline.

In the right place
So, as Grace made her way across the border, I pulled up to 5 Frost Street in Musina, a single-level, mustard-yellow home, a few blocks from the N1, to see if I could find out what, exactly, was going on with other Zimbabweans who were crossing. The Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) sign clinging to the fence was the only evidence I was in the right place.

I was there to meet Ariane Bauernfeind, the head of mission for MSF in South Africa, who was in Musina that week. It was after 4pm and the MSF workers had begun to stream into the office from their day in mobile clinics out at local farms, lugging boxes of files, coolers filled with patient samples and canopies collapsed and folded into black carrying bags.

Bauernfeind arrived, pulling me into a makeshift office with a leaky air conditioner. She told me that although MSF had been operating in the area since 2007, at first they couldn’t find a single Zimbabwean to administer healthcare to, even though they were streaming across the border in their thousands.

Things changed dramatically by 2009. A month after the Zimbabwean elections, in April that year, the home affairs department enacted the special dispensation, which suspended the deportation of Zimbabweans and introduced a three-month, visa-free entry system. (The ACMS noted in its report a third element—a special permit that would enable Zimbabweans to remain in the country – which they say never came into effect.)

By July that year thousands of Zimbabweans were crowding the border, sleeping in the dirt of the Musina showgrounds; at the end of the year the cholera epidemic had exploded, making international headlines and creating plenty of work for MSF.

But by early February this year it was clear to MSF workers that their patients—many of whom are on long-term TB and HIV treatment—were no longer around. Picking season had begun, Bauernfeind told me, and the farmers were complaining that their workers had not yet returned from the December holidays. And now it doesn’t look as if they will.

Section 23 documentation
Those with emergency travel documents, which had previously allowed farmers to employ Zimbabweans under corporate permits, are reportedly being turned away unless they have passports, which the majority of farm workers don’t have.

Those working with migrants were also hearing that the Section 23 documentation, issued to asylum seekers and giving them 14 days transit so they can report to a refugee office and officially apply for asylum, is no longer being issued at the home affairs department in Musina.

Now, it appears, they are being told to return to the border to get their Section 23, something that would put potentially vulnerable people in a difficult position: return to the border where there was a good possibility you would be denied entry and shipped back to where you came from, or go underground.

While Grace and I were in Musina, the home affairs portfolio committee was meeting in Parliament to hear public comment on proposed amendments to the Immigration Bill. These included recommendations that Section 23 be reduced from the current 14-day time limit to five days (in spite of the fact that many who responded to the public comment process, including the ACMS, said 14 days was not long enough), with pre-screening procedures for asylum seekers, which a high court has previously found unlawful and unconstitutional.

Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma spoke vigorously in defence of the amendments, which would clamp down on the unmitigated flow of Zimbabweans into the country.

But government has for years been remarkably silent on the issue at the root of the migration: President Robert Mugabe’s rule, which has left the economy in turmoil, a populace in fear following mass election violence and a power-sharing agreement in which Mugabe clearly holds all the power.

“They seem to be adopting various measures to make it more difficult for Zimbabweans, who they view as economic migrants, to enter the country,” said the ACMS’s Roni Amit, who oversaw the Zimbabwean documentation report. “People who have proper asylum claims, and who are not economic migrants, may also be turned away under these measures.”

Right now, all that is clear is that much continues to be unclear to many. According to Jacob Mamabolo, the project manager of the documentation process for the department, there shouldn’t be any confusion at all. He said it was from June last year that emergency transit documents were no longer accepted without passports, and that all the department was doing differently now in regard to the Section 23 documents was finally to enforce a long-standing policy of issuing them at entry points and that prescreening potential applicants was part of that process. Right now, all MSF can say for sure is that their patients aren’t around anymore.

“In the South African Constitution it says everyone has to have access to medical care,” Bauernfeind told me. “But you think these people are going to go into a public building? They won’t go. They think: the police might be here and if they find me, I’ll be deported. It makes our work here difficult.” How their work could be more difficult is hard to wrap your head around.

In May of 2010 MSF produced a briefing paper highlighting the risks of those crossing the border, focusing on, among other things, the increasing levels of rape. In the report a 27-year old man told his story about crossing the Limpopo River, where he was met by a gang of thugs—guma guma—who were armed with knives and guns.

“They forced me to have sex with the women in my group and I refused,” the man told the researcher. “Then one of the guma guma forced his penis into my anus and ejaculated inside. I don’t actually know how many of them forced themselves upon me because I was confused by the whole incident. I fainted and when I woke up they were nowhere to be found.”

Such reports have not slowed. The Friday before I arrived six rape cases were reported to MSF, all in one day. Even those who make it past the armed gangs and the swelling Limpopo River, which has been sweeping away Zimbabweans crossing by the dozen of late, are targeted by everyone and anyone looking to make a buck off their desperation.

“It’s disgusting,” Bauernfeind said. “People are taking advantage of disadvantage. Everyone makes a business out of this.” Just then, Grace phoned. She had made it over to the Zimbabwe side and was heading back across the bridge. She had heard she had to stay seven nights in Zimbabwe to get back, but there was a guy telling her he could help her. He wanted R80. I explained to the MSF people what was happening and one of the researchers got wide-eyed. “She’s got papers? She’s not supposed to leave the country.”

I told Grace what I knew. She drew a deep breath and put down the phone. As the sun was beginning to set, I went to a shelter in Nancefield, the township on the outskirts of Musina, to get an idea of what it’s like for those not lucky enough to have papers.

At one shelter—which usually accommodates 40 women, with their small children, who stay an average of three or four days, every night of the week—women sat in the dark, smoky night eating pap from paper plates. A teenager wearing a patent leather red belt and a denim skirt stared into the light of her cellphone looking for an answer as another woman sobbed uncontrollably.

I turned to the woman next to me, who gave her name only as Charmaine, and asked how long she had been here. “Three days,” she told me as we sat in the dark on a cool concrete slab. “I’m waiting to get my Section 23. But I don’t know what’s happening.” Then she narrowed her eyes to make a fine point of all this. “You know,” she said, slowly moving some pap from her plate into her mouth. “They treat us like animals.”

It was after 9pm when Grace called to say she had crossed back. I drove along the unlit N1 and found her right where I had dropped her five hours earlier. She hopped into the car and told me how she did it.

Talking to another Zimbabwean woman in the queue as they were leaving South Africa, she found out about the seven-day stayover, something she knew about but neglected to tell me—after all, there are ways around small problems like these. That was when the guy approached and offered to help.

‘Not listening’
He walked with Grace across the bridge to Zimbabwe, somehow without getting his passport stamped either way. On their way back across the bridge, she showed her new friend the paper from home affairs.

“You can’t have your passport stamped now,” he warned her. “You’re going to spoil your permit. You shouldn’t have come.” He then offered to take her under the bridge for R200. But Grace knew about the guma guma; her younger sister crossed illegally last year with her boyfriend and they were relived of their cellphones and R1 700 but were not hurt. She told the man she’d make her own way and left him, heading for the border processing area to join a queue, where she showed her passport and the receipt.

“You didn’t stay for seven days,” the official offered and tossed her documents back. Grace joined another queue and did the same thing. That official sent her to a supervisor. By the time she reached him, she was in tears, explaining she had made a terrible mistake.

A short balding man in uniform leaned into the conversation: “You are not listening to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. You are not listening to her on the radio, on the TV.” But maybe the supervisor knew that not everything Nkosasana-Zuma was saying was so clear. The supervisor told her that, from now on, she should stay in South Africa with the receipt and wait to hear from home affairs. She was given another 30 days on her visa.

It took numerous phone calls and emails to the department this week to get clarity on various issues around Zimbabwean immigrants. In the end the response came so late and in so many bits and pieces it meant that much valuable information was kept out of our print newspaper story, and is available only online. (See link below).

Meanwhile, Grace’s brother-in-law, a gardener, was contacted by the department. He now has a work permit valid for four years. Grace is still waiting to hear about her fate. I called to ask her what the most difficult part of all of this was. “They must just tell us what they want,” she said. “If they want us to go, they must just tell us.”

Her husband, on the other hand, knows exactly what it is the department wants and he’ll have nothing to do with it. He’s sick of this place, sick of the xenophobia, sick of the dangerous Hillbrow highrise where they live. When they come for him, he’ll go quietly. And that may be just what the department is aiming for.

*Grace is not her real name

This article was originally published in the Mail & Guardian in February 2011