Back From the Dead
How South Africa became the world's No. 1 asylum destination.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Givemore Gift Nhidza is not dead.
Over the last year, several newspapers have reported that Nhidza, a political activist in Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, is dead. But he is alive, and like 3 million other Zimbabweans, he is living in South Africa until the day he can return home without fear of being killed or going hungry.
South Africa's refugee population is massive. In 2009, the country received more than 222,000 new asylum requests, according to UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, making it the No. 1 asylum destination in the world, ahead of the United States, Sweden, France, and Germany. Africans go to South Africa to escape violence and poverty because it is a beacon of stability and economic growth on the continent. They arrive by bus after journeys that last weeks from countries such as Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, and Tanzania. When they get close to the border, those without legal papers walk through the bush and swim across rivers to avoid being sent back.
The vast majority of South Africa's refugees come from Zimbabwe. Approximately one-quarter of that country's population has gone to South Africa in recent years to escape political and economic devastation under the autocratic rule of President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. The situation has hardly eased in the last two years, despite the creation of a unity government with the MDC. According to the United Nations, 3.3 million people in Zimbabwe are at risk of hunger, and the country frequently tops lists of the world's most failed states.
To see this crisis firsthand, you only need to visit the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, where, on any given night, you will find as many as 2,000 homeless Zimbabweans. Young orphans, HIV-positive mothers, and former members of parliament sleep head to foot on the church's floors and staircases. New arrivals show up at the makeshift refugee camp on a daily basis. Médecins Sans Frontières, a humanitarian organization that prides itself on working in the most desperate conditions around the world, runs a clinic next to the church to provide them with medical treatment. Paul Verryn, the 58-year-old bishop who runs Central Methodist, says the refugees started coming in 2002, and perhaps as many as 40,000 have come through the doors since then, staying anywhere from a few nights to months. "Joburg became a magnet for people who were running for their lives," he says. "Their expectation was that they were coming to safety." The reality is entirely different.
The South African government has repeatedly taken a "quiet diplomacy" posture toward Mugabe, and it has labeled Zimbabweans undocumented "economic migrants" and therefore illegal in South Africa and subject to deportation. The refugee crisis, says Human Rights Watch, is really a failure of South Africa's foreign policy to acknowledge the political crisis across its border. Furthermore, refugees are resented by South Africans who believe they have come to take the few jobs that are available to them, and they are vulnerable to attacks like those that killed 60 people in 2008 and reignited after the World Cup.
The root of this violence, says Verryn—whose religious services contain a strong element of liberation theology—is poverty. South Africans are fighting with refugees over the few scraps of opportunity available to the masses. "If this country doesn't face the unacceptable disparity between the rich and the poor," he warns, "we are going to face a deluge of violence that will be difficult to measure."
When 34-year-old Nhidza arrived in South Africa, he also went to Central Methodist. "When I came here, I was totally dead," he explains. As someone who has been a political activist for the MDC in Zimbabwe since 1999, Nhidza was arrested and beaten on multiple occasions. The bottoms of his feet are covered in dozens of black scars, the result of electric shocks during these imprisonments, he says. But the worst came in June 2008, during the presidential runoff election between Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, when he was abducted by ZANU-PF militias and taken to a torture camp.
Maura R. O'Connor is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and a freelance foreign correspondent. She is a 2010 Phillips Foundation fellow.
Photograph of Zimbabwean refugees in the Central Methodist Church by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images.