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The Crisis in Zimbabwe: Atlantic’s Work with Refugees in the Limpopo Province

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Gara LaMarche


I recently travelled to Limpopo, a South African province on the border of Zimbabwe that is experiencing an influx of Zimbabweans who are escaping from that very troubled country, where human rights are disregarded, disease is running rampant, and the economy long ago melted down. Joined by several of my Atlantic colleagues from the U.S. and Ireland, I went to study the situation and visit our grantees who are working to protect the rights of Zimbabwean refugees. This work is taking place as part of our broader programme to counter xenophobia and protect the human rights of refugees in South Africa. To this end, Atlantic supports a number of nonprofit organisations that work with Zimbabweans. For the most part, these organisations are based in Limpopo.

Nearly a third of Zimbabwe’s population – some four million people – has left the country since the onset of the economic and political crisis a decade ago. Most fled their homeland to avoid political repression, starvation and the recent and ongoing outbreak of cholera which has claimed at least 4,000 lives and infected another 85,000 since December of last year. The majority of these refugees have come to South Africa where they have, until a few months ago, existed in a legal limbo.

The impact on South Africa of this flood of refugees has been adverse, particularly on poor local communities, where the competition for jobs, housing and access to services among South Africans is intense. There has now also been a cholera outbreak in South Africa which has spread from the northern towns bordering Zimbabwe to informal refugee settlements in the Western Cape. In South Africa, we have not always met this test well. Our government has failed to speak out against the violations in Zimbabwe and sadly a wave of xenophobic violence swept South Africa in May 2008, in which 70 people – mostly Zimbabweans – lost their lives.

In fact, our government’s response to the crisis has made the situation more grave. It has consistently refused to recognise Zimbabweans as refugees and has upheld its position that there is no crisis in Zimbabwe and the political dispute is resolvable through quiet diplomacy. As a result, the presence of most Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa, with the exception of the few primarily skilled professionals who are able to obtain temporary work permits or permanent residence, has been deemed illegal and they have been subject to summary arrest and deportation by the authorities. Finally – and out of the public spotlight – the Department of Home Affairs has very recently begun to issue temporary six-month asylum seeker permits to all Zimbabweans – a tacit recognition of that there is indeed, a crisis. These permits allow Zimbabweans to work and to access health services and schools in South Africa.

With all of this on our minds and conscious of the need to defend the human rights of Zimbabwean refugees, we toured the area to see how organisations we are supporting are fairing in their efforts.

Hundreds of refugee children, many of whom are orphans, sleep rough in the towns of Limpopo. In Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), the capital of the province, we visited The Refugee Children’s Project, (RCP), a national organisation, which has a satellite office there that deals specifically with Zimbabwean child refugees and unaccompanied minors. The project’s main objective is to secure safe accommodation for these children in Polokwane at a state-of-the-art facility which provides bedding, food and educational and health facilities. By its own admission, the RCP is only able to place a small number of those who come into South Africa; others resist being placed, preferring to travel on to Johannesburg where family members may have gone ahead or to seek work. Other children live a feral existence in Limpopo towns, begging, engaging in petty crime and sex work and are vulnerable to rape and other forms of violence and exploitation. Many of these children have lost their parents to repression or death from starvation and AIDS and have walked the length of Zimbabwe to reach the border of South Africa. The RCP is working with both government and private service providers to try to address some of these problems.

We visited Musina, where the streets are choked with small rusty trucks and ramshackle cars piled high with cooking oil, flour and the latest commodity in demand – cholera-free, bottled water. Musina is South Africa’s northern-most town, 10 kilometres from the Beit Bridge border post where the Limpopo River divides South Africa from Zimbabwe. This is the main crossing point between the two countries. On the surface, Musina is a bustling hub of commerce where thousands of Zimbabweans who still have access to money buy goods and staples no longer available in Zimbabwe. But away from the main street, a stark humanitarian crisis plays itself out.

In Musina, we met with a lawyer from Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) who has been transferred from Pretoria to Musina to provide legal support to asylum seekers and to help coordinate food and other relief amongst the town’s small number of nonprofit organisations, churches, shelters and local government departments. He asked us not to use his name, but he is Zimbabwean himself, and he recently left his law practice in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, for South Africa. He hopes to return home before too long.

The local police in Musina are possibly corrupt and distinctly hostile to the refugees, abusing the rights of asylum seekers by illegally arresting and detaining them and returning them forcibly to Zimbabwe. The detainees are held at a nearby military base in a rudimentarily converted gym, where there are no beds and detainees are locked up at night without access to toilets. The lawyer has access to the detainees and is able to intervene on behalf of many, but the officials make his life difficult and illegal deportations are still taking place. The conditions are in violation of several by-laws and protocols and LHR is preparing a case in the Limpopo High Court to order the local police to treat the refugees in accordance with the law.

The lawyer says that most refugees cross the treacherous Limpopo River into South Africa. In summer the river is in flood and is about a kilometre wide and is infested with crocodiles. Currently, the river is infected with cholera, and the bodies of cholera victims have been found in the reed beds on the river banks by teams from the Department of Health. Once they cross the river the refugees have to avoid border patrols and cut their way through a double fence of razor wire. Some are assisted by freelance agents who provide escape routes for a fee. Others are at risk of being attacked by bandits who murder people for their possessions and rape women. Yet still thousands cross each week.

At the Musina hospital, the Department of Health has set up a series of rehydration tents to deal with cholera victims from Zimbabwe, where health services have completely collapsed. The LRH lawyer took us on a tour of the local “Showgrounds”- a euphemism for a dusty un-tarred, abandoned parking lot about the size of a rugby field. The Department of Home Affairs set up a reception centre here, which reportedly issues 380 temporary asylum-seeker permits every day. We met a family of 20, at least half of whom are infants, from Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who have travelled for weeks, hitching rides from truck drivers, through four countries to reach Musina. They are fleeing the war in Eastern DRC. They have nothing, except the clothes on their backs and some disheveled possessions, mostly children’s toys.

Up to 4,000 Zimbabweans camp out at the Showgrounds, sleeping on pieces of cardboard and plastic to secure a place in the Home Affairs queue for papers. On average it takes a month to obtain the precious documentation. During this time the group is effectively restricted to the site for fear of being arrested and deported. There is no shelter; they are exposed to the elements; a few acacia trees provided meager shade in temperatures that rise to 40 degrees in summer. The town provides 12 water access points from which 4,000 people drink and where they wash themselves and their clothes; there is no privacy. There are 14 portable toilets, but many are overflowing and there is the smell of sewage in the air. The place looks like the aftermath of a natural disaster.

We visited the Musina Legal Advice Office, established in the 1980s by Joseph Matakanyane, an activist of the United Democratic Front, one of the primary anti-apartheid organisations in South Africa. Joseph and a small team of para-legals provided advice and support to political activists, workers involved in labour disputes, people illegally evicted from their land or homes under apartheid laws and so on. In the late 1990s after the advent of democracy, donor funding was withdrawn from the Centre, but Joseph and his colleagues continued to provide a legal advice service on a voluntary basis – increasingly encountering Zimbabwean clients. With a grant from Atlantic, the Centre now employs a staff of 12 and is able to offer a comprehensive legal advice service to refugees in Musina and the surrounding area and to assist in coordinating relief and services for refugees.

We visited the Mamadi Legal Advice Centre (MLAC), a grantee of the Multi-Agency Grants Initiative, established by Atlantic, The Ford Foundation, HIVOS and other donors to make grants to community based organisations. The MLAC is based near Alldays in the agricultural region of Limpopo. Its target is Zimbabweans employed as temporary labour on farms. As refugees with no status in the country, they are easily exploited as cheap labour and human rights abuses such as assault, eviction and so on do take place. The MLAC provides legal advice and support and tries to ensure that South African labour laws are complied with in the local farming community.

The visit to Limpopo was eye-opening, both in terms of the dire circumstances of these refugees and the need for government to fully recognise the situation and provide increased support. But it was also inspiring: these organisations, hundreds of miles from the nearest urban centre, are providing access to the law and protecting the human rights of refugees and those who are evicted from their land. Brian Kearney-Grieve, a colleague from our Dublin office who travelled with us, recalled learning on this trip about the case of a 70 year old man who had been evicted from the farm where he had lived his whole life and who, as a result of the support of the MLAC, is now able to live out the rest of his days there and has had his cattle returned to him. “This is, for me, what making rights real is all about!” Kearney-Grieve said, “In the middle of nowhere, the human rights framework and the rule of law does have power and can change lives.”

We and our grantees are committed to doing what Brian described, “making rights real” for refugees from Zimbabwe and other countries in South Africa.

Gerald Kraak


Atlantic grantees working to secure the rights of refugees in South Africa:

To learn more about the crisis in Zimbabwe, please visit the Save Zimbabwe Now Campaign.

Click here to watch a video of Matt Damon’s recent tour of the Musina refugee camp: