Zimbabweans in South Africa unconvinced by unity deal

The Central Methodist Church has become a transit camp for Zimbabweans who left their ruined country only to find more misery in South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy.

Inside the building, up to 2,000 huddle together in the only home they could find. A further 2,000 spill out on to the streets, jostling for space to sleep on the crowded sidewalks.

About 3 million Zimbabweans have fled to nearby countries, many of them to their southern neighbour.

The September power-sharing deal between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai finally produced a unity government last month. There are signs that political tension in the new administration may be easing.

Few in the church are cheering, however. They are still suspicious of Mugabe and some hope for what seems to be the impossible before they go home for good: a new political era without the veteran leader, who has been in power since 1980.

"When some of us went back, they were immediately arrested … I know that would happen to me as well," said William Kandowe from Harare, a teacher.

Some braved crocodile-infested rivers and risked robbery or rape to get to South Africa, hoping for relief from hyper-inflation and food and fuel shortages.

"The majority of South Africans do not want Zimbabweans in the country: they employ us and when it’s time to get paid, they report you to the police," Kandowe said.

"You run away from danger just to be arrested, to be asked for a bribe and then put back where you are running away from."


Zimbabweans, many highly educated, are often blamed for South Africa’s crime wave or accused of stealing jobs.

Businesses have started to complain about the numbers spilling out of the church and sleeping on the sidewalks, and the health hazards that could arise.

One of those in the church was diagnosed with meningitis this week, raising the prospect of an outbreak to add to their hardships.

"Most of us were not used to such conditions … to lie down on the floor without a blanket or anything to make a cushion, but you can’t go out because the police will be after you," said Elizabeth Cheza, 30, who helps process new arrivals.

Few would expect police protection if there is a repeat of last year’s attacks on foreigners.

The only option is to wait for signs that Zimbabwe’s new government will have something to offer.  

Judging by reactions to the car crash that killed Tsvangirai’s wife last week, they will take a lot of persuading that stability is possible. Tsvangirai ruled out foul play but some of those in the church were sceptical.

"You can’t have so many people in a place like this running away from a country if it’s a (paradise) … there definitely is fish smelling in the state of Zimbabwe," said Bishop Paul Verryn who runs the church.

As economic migrants in South Africa, most of the Zimbabweans do not have refugee status and do not qualify for healthcare and social services.

"We sit here with people who are vulnerable and think they would be even more vulnerable if they went back because they think that the knives have not been put away yet."