When 21 year old Clemence, a welder by trade, popped out to the shops, he forgot to take a piece of paper with him. Before too long he found himself in a strange country, where he knew no-one. It took him four months and a lot of walking to get back to his home.
Clemence, whose dad had brought him to South Africa as a toddler, is amongst the almost 10000 humans who have been forcibly removed back to Zimbabwe by the ANC government since a moratorium on arresting and deporting undocumented Zimbabweans was lifted in October last year.
It shouldn’t have happened. Clemence had his asylum seekers permit at home, and there is an internal directive issued by the Director-General of South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs, which stipulates that checks should be made to ensure that the migrants have not applied for asylum or other permits before deportation takes place.
Yet, according to Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, who heads up the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, migrants with the right to remain in South Africa are often found at the Lindela Repatriation Centre outside Johannesburg, where humans like Clemence are taken prior to deportation.
Reading about this brings back vivid memories of watching cops round up people without the right permits, on Saturday nights in Hillbrow Johannnesburg, in the early eighties in Apartheid South Africa.
When I was still in primary school in South Africa, I ran away from home and was picked up by the police. At the police station a cop showed me the cells that were overcrowded, dark and smelly. He showed me the awful food that prisoners were fed, and warned me that if I was dumb enough to run away from home again, I would end up in a cell like that too. Four decades later and minors are still being detained in these appalling conditions for fleeing violence, and seeking sanctuary.
It does make me wonder how many people who watched Clemence’s arrest on that night of September remembered the Pass Laws of the Apartheid era, and realised how similar this all was. When struggling for liberation from oppression the ANC were full of lofty ideals about freedom and equality. Now they are in power, the Freedom Charter is a forgotten piece of paper, and their cops behave just like the cops behaved before ‘liberation’ was achieved.
How many watching Clemence being bundled into the back of that van wanted to step in and say, “Leave him alone, he is harming no-one, let him get on with his life”? How many felt powerless, like I did in the eighties, and wished they knew what to do to stop it?
Last night, activists who had been attending the London No Borders convergence, descended on the Harmondsworth and Colnbrook Detention Centres near Heathrow, where they attempted to block the exits in effort to stop migrants being taken to a chartered flight (which some named the #deathflight) to Ghana. In the end, the flight may well have been delayed, and most of the humans due to be on the flight may find themselves in Ghana by now, but at least 2 were saved by last minute court interventions.
One of the blockaders, Dave Leighton, 34, said:
“This flight has to be stopped. Everyone, not just a privileged few, should enjoy the freedom to move and stay wherever they want or need, regardless of their nationality or bank balance. Forcible deportations reinforce a screwed-up system whereby the rich and powerful use borders as a convenient tool to divide and distract ordinary people from the real causes of inequality.”
I’m glad that Clemence is home, and that two people were saved from that #deathflight, but how many hundreds of thousands of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees will suffer unbearably today for wanting to escape the violence and seek sanctuary. Or just for trying to feed their hungry kids?
And what will we do about it?