Fear grips undocumented foreign workers in South Africa

Johannesburg (AFP) – A Zimbabwean migrant domestic worker, Precious, who arrived late for work, rushed into her duties for a white South African family as if nothing had happened, but hours earlier she had been arrested for being in the country without papers.

South Africa – the most industrialized country on the continent – is awash in a wave of illegal migration triggered by the economic difficulties of its neighbours. Many come from Malawi, Lesotho, but the majority come from Zimbabwe.

Recently, the police have intensified stop and search operations to combat crime, in particular by eliminating undocumented migrants.

Such a morning blitz was launched this week in Springs, a neighborhood at the eastern end of the larger city of Johannesburg.

Several dozen police set up a checkpoint on a narrow road, stopping cars and buses, meticulously searching boots and ordering occupants out, demanding identification.

Grabbed by the waist or the arm, they were led one by one to the side of the road towards a queue that stretched in front of the immigration officers.

“These are weekly operations,” provincial police chief Elias Mawela told AFP. “When it is confirmed that they are illegal in the country, they will be taken care of and later they will be brought to justice… and sent back to their country of origin.”

But during some raids, the police solicit bribes to free the migrants.

On the day Precious was arrested at a minibus taxi rank in downtown Johannesburg, she was one of 30 people loaded into a police van.

She was asked to pay 1,000 rand on the spot – the equivalent of her weekly salary – or risk being taken to the police station for possible deportation.

Precious immediately texted her employer warning that she would be late and frantically called friends and associates to collect the bribe money.


“I was scared,” the single mother of two said.

“It’s not good to be a stranger these days,” Precious, 36, said as she folded up a pair of corduroy pants she was ironing.

Official data lists around 3.8 million migrants in South Africa, a figure considered a gross understatement.

Foreigners, especially those from the rest of Africa, are the target of xenophobic resentments and accused of taking jobs in a country where at least one in three people are unemployed.

Zimbabwe has a long history of immigration to South Africa, dating back to the 19th century when the gold rush saw mining companies hire labor across borders.

In 2009, Pretoria granted four-year work visas to around 250,000 Zimbabweans fleeing economic and political turmoil in their country. The permits have since been renewed several times, but authorities have promised they will not be extended beyond June 2023.

But many other Zimbabweans continued to stream into South Africa illegally across porous borders in search of greener pastures.

The massive influx of foreigners has angered many South Africans who accuse them of taking their jobs and putting undue pressure on public facilities.

Recently, a group of anti-immigration activists picketed a public hospital west of Pretoria – blocking patients they suspected of being foreigners, accusing them of putting pressure on the public health sector .

Their action follows a viral video of the provincial health minister berating a Zimbabwean patient, accusing her of seeking free treatment at a government hospital at the expense of South Africans.

Domestic worker Precious recalls giving birth to her son, now 11, in a government hospital in Zimbabwe.

“There’s nothing there, not even water to wash the baby when it’s born. No painkillers,” she said.

Asked about some of his officers who take bribes in a country with high crime rates and endemic corruption, Police Commissioner Mawela urged anyone who is asked for a bribe “to bring it to our attention so that we can investigate it.”

“We cannot take these accusations lightly.”

About Mitchel McMillan

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