Harassment of Refugees is everyone’s problem

Date: January 1, 1970
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When my daughter phoned me just before 5 pm last Friday to tell me that the police picked up our Zimbabwean born gardener again for not having the right documents, I did not change my plans for the evening. This unfortunately is a regular occurrence. The last time it happened was just a month ago, after 10 at night in the pouring rain.

That time, I was home and pointed out to the police (who had driven onto my plot without a search warrant or even bothering to inform me that they were there) that he has a Home Affairs document granting him asylum, but they would not listen.  Speaking to the station commander the following morning was also fruitless.  Home Affairs only released the young man in the late afternoon, having had no food in 24 hours. 
As it turned out, this last intrusion was different. Police officers broke into, vandalised and took items from my house. No one was there when it happened, but my neighbour heard the commotion and came down to see what was going on. He saw three uniformed and gloved police officers and spoke to the police captain in charge before they left. 
Three officers forced open the outer grill door to the cottage and kicked open three other locked doors on the inside of the house.  The door from the kitchen into the main house, which opens inwards, stopped them.  They broke off the handle and tried to dig into the door. 
They rummaged through my son’s bedroom in the cottage, breaking a large window and helping themselves to his cell phone and gold watch in the process.  They then went around to the other side of the house and attempted to pull open the padlocked French door. 
The police later said that that were investigating a complaint of selling illegal brew at the brick works next door to us on payday.  The construction boom has created a huge demand for bricks.  Much of the extra labour needed for this backbreaking work comes from the flood of Zimbabwean refugees desperate to survive and to send something to their families at home. 
The police stopped all the workers, checking their papers as they left that afternoon.  All those that could not satisfy the police about their papers were threatened with the “Gombakomba” (large police van used to transport those that have been apprehended).  Rather than face deportation many handed over their entire, unopened pay packets. 
Witnesses estimated that the police “netted” up to R30 000 for themselves that afternoon.  I am sure that police are capable of recognising valid Home Affairs documents, like those held by my gardener, but that pretended ignorance allows them to keep on collecting such bribes is bliss.
Apparently, some of the more daring workers attempted to avoid the police and ran onto my plot next door.  This is when the three gloved officers set off in pursuit and found my locked house, which they then broke into. 
When I later tried to get the police to come home with me to assess the damage, they laughed at me and drove off. I felt totally helpless and vulnerable.  My daughter did not want us to sleep in the house that night, but I was determined that I would not be driven from my own home.
The captain had a contingent of forty police who cordoned off the road leading from the brick works.  It seems strange that there are never enough police to investigate cases of arson or rape or murder but it is possible to bring in FORTY police for a case of illicit brew. 
I opened a case of breaking, entering and theft with the local police station on Monday and am awaiting the detectives that have promised to come and investigate it.  I have also written to the MEC Firoz Cachalia appealing to him to “ensure that the police work within the law and desist from such blatant and flagrant violation of our human rights”
Talking about what happened to my house, how frightened my daughter is, many people express shock and disbelief. Yet for many who come to South Africa, this kind of harassment and fear is an every day occurrence. In this case, it spilled over to affect my home personally.
Working in the social development and human rights field, I see many injustices in this country. Many people think that harassment of refuges and migrants is someone else’s problem. Yet it is the same attitude and lack of accountability that allows harassment of refugees, a culture of bribes, breaking into personal property, and laughing at a citizen making a complaint. In the end, when those we trust for our safety and security abuse these positions in any way, it affects all of our lives and well-being.
Lynette Mudekunye was born in South Africa, grew up in Zimbabwe where her parents sought refuge and is married to a Zimbabwean.  She has worked in the child rights field for many years. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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