When life and death are more important than football

All roads lead to South Africa for fans – and for refugees trying to escape Zimbabwe's brutal regime.
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The Independent Online

Barbera is one of hundreds of visitors arriving every day in South Africa. She spent more than a year planning the trip. The 22 year old had the usual fears about coming. Would the journey be arduous? How could she find somewhere safe to stay in Johannesburg. She worried about crime. And how could she afford it?

In the end she invested her life savings and some borrowed money to make what she hopes was a once in a lifetime trip.

Barbera is not a football fan. She is one of more than 300 Zimbabwean migrants pouring across the Limpopo River into South Africa every day in a human tide that has stopped being talked about but hasn't stopped.

As the World Cup begins in South Africa's commercial capital on Friday wealthy foreign supporters are checking in to expensive hotels built to welcome them.

For the next month the supporters and the migrants will occupy the same city while living in totally different worlds. And the final whistle on 12 July will mark the end of the dream for both groups.

Barbera had to leave the Zimbabwean capital Harare.

Her work as a youth activist with the opposition made her a target for government thugs. One night she was badly beaten in her own home with her mother and six month old daughter watching.

As she tells her story an angry scar inflicted during the assault wrinkles on her forehead.

The young mother's journey south was a living nightmare. She was raped, beaten and robbed.

Relatives near the border gave her some money to pay "guides" who would help her across the river into South Africa. But instead of helping Barbera and the dozen women with her, "they stopped us in the bush and told us if we wanted to go further we would have to sleep with them."

"I said no. But they raped me anyway."

Like scores of other women she fell victim to the notorious "guma guma" gangs that roam the badlands between the two countries. A clinic run by Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) in Musina on the South African side said it had treated 71 rape victims since 1 March. Eight of the women are pregnant after being assaulted.

The real numbers of people attacked are probably far higher. The clinic can only count those who stop to ask for help.

Barbera didn't stop, she kept going to Johannesburg.

When she got there her first priority was to take an Aids test.

"I was lucky," she says bitterly. "If you're unlucky you'll be raped by someone who is HIV positive."

Fifteen months after Zimbabwe got its controversial government of national unity an average of 2,100 Zimbabweans are turning up at the department of Home Affairs office in Musina each week, seeking asylum. Only one percent of them will get the refugee status they seek.

Most have no paperwork. A passport, if you can get one at all, can cost more than $200 in Zimbabwe.

A government proposal in South Africa to give a special dispensation permit to Zimbabweans to give them temporary legal status in the country has been shelved by an administration that claims the crisis has waned.

Estimates of the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa vary wildly. Researchers working for migrant rights groups, who have a tendency to understate the numbers, put the figure as low at 700,000. Equally unreliable government estimates reach as high as two million. The local media regularly inflates the figure to four million.

As many as 50,000 squatters are living in derelict buildings in inner city Johannesburg.

At the MSF free clinic next to the Central Methodist Church in the city there is another clue. The numbers of people being treated each week has gone up from 900 two years ago to 2,300 -- almost all of them Zimbabweans.

Church officials say more people arrive every day.

"South Africa says there's no crisis in Zimbabwe," says Ishmael Kauzani, who heads up a new migrant rights group in the city calling itself the Zimbabwe Youth Wing.

"Of course at their level the politicians can say there's no crisis. At our level there is a crisis. It's not being reported but activists (in Zimbabwe) are being beaten, being arrested, especially in rural areas."

The youth leader believes that the regional pressure on the opposition to join a clearly flawed power sharing administration with Robert Mugabe's party was caused by the need to paper over the cracks ahead of the World Cup.

"South Africa just wants to show that everything is peaceful."

"These government people try to protect each other but on the ground the poor suffer."

Kauzani knows at first hand how brutal politics in his homeland can be.

A veteran of the Movement for Democratic Change and one time bodyguard to Morgan Tsvangirai, he has been arrested, beaten and tortured repeatedly. He finally fled in April 2008 after his last prison torture session left him with three broken ribs.

Soon after he left his brother and two colleagues were murdered near his home. He has no doubt he would have died if had stayed.

Kauzani arrived in Johannesburg just as a wildfire of xenophobic violence swept South Africa killing 62 people and leaving 100,000 in refugee camps. Hiding out at the Methodist church along with two thousand of his compatriots he remembers: "I was still in pain, I couldn't do anything and outside, around here, people were being beaten like nobody's business."

There is mounting concern that once the world football party is over the xenophobic violence -- in which mobs of mainly poor black South Africans targeted equally poor African migrants -- will break out again.

The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CORMSA) has been one of the first groups to sound the alarm.

"The threat of violence after the World Cup is serious," says CORMSA's Duncan Breen. "We're not saying this is inevitable."

His organisation has recorded 10 xenophobic attacks on foreign migrants and foreign-owned businesses already this year. "We are saying that there is a climate of threat which does mean that one incident could spark this off like it did last time."

Paul Verryn, a retired Methodist Bishop and outspoken champion of the poor, who turned the inner city church into a haven for thousands of Zimbabweans, says the underlying conditions that led to violence two years ago have not been addressed.

South Africa's rich potential is undermined by "corruption and crime", he says, leaving the poor in conditions where they have no "shelter, dignity or opportunity".

The end of apartheid in 1994 has failed to transform the lives of millions of black South Africans who find they are still unemployed and living in squalid shanty towns. South Africa spends more on welfare than any other developing economy but there is widespread public anger that "service delivery" is failing because of corruption and incompetence.

Some 1,500 people sleep every night in the church next to the old Supreme Court. While the vast majority are Zimbabweans there are other African migrants and four white South Africans fallen on hard times.

Bishop Paul, as he is known to everyone at the church, is getting organised in the hope of avoiding a repeat of 2008. A "peace action" is getting underway that will see volunteers man phone lines so that people can report threats or make a statement and that everything is catalogued and reported -- forcing the authorities to acknowledge what's going on.

In the usual pre-amble to mega events everywhere in the world Johannesburg has been tidying away things it doesn't want seen. More than 350 people have been arrested for loitering. Homeless women have been told to get off the streets or risk having their children taken away, the Bishop says.

"They want Joburg [sic] to be a world class African city. That's what it is. Every world class city has poverty.

"Instead of showing [rich] Sandton we should show the struggle, not allow visitors to pacify their consciences with soccer," he says.

He compares paying for the World Cup instead of addressing brutal inequalities to buying a Mercedes when you have nothing in the fridge. "Unless we do something about poverty this happy peace we have will become a nightmare," he warns.

For Barbera that's what it has already become.

The daily diet of threats and intimidation has left her frightened to look for work. She stays in a squat with her sister separated from hundreds of others by a curtain.

"I was just thinking of working and sending some money home," she says.

"But there is this problem of xenophobia."

"These South Africans they shout at us in the streets and they say after the World Cup we must go home."

The threats are not limited to random encounters on the street. Another young Zimbabwean said she had been insulted and told to pay a hefty bribe to renew her three-month permit to stay in South Africa. When she asked why, she was told "you shouldn't be here, it's time for you to go home".

Other migrants say they are routinely denied treatment at public hospitals.

A Nigerian woman said that she was threatened when she asked for her change on the bus to work. When she complained to the bus driver and asked for the money the other passengers jeered at her and told her to "go home".

Stung by criticism from rights groups like Amnesty International the South African government insists there is "no evidence" of an increased threat to African migrants. Spokesman Themba Maseko said last week that strong action would be taken in any case: "it is totally unacceptable to attack foreign nationals ... we will not tolerate it."

Barbera is not reassured. She says that even in the public toilets she gets shouted at and told to get out. They yell that "Zimbabweans are making a mess".

As she speaks her words are drowned out by some local football fans blasting away on vuvuzelas, the metre-long plastic horns that will soon be familiar to television audiences everywhere. On Pritchard Street in Johannesburg's central business district there is a party atmosphere, street lights and shop windows are draped in flags and people are wearing Bafana Bafana national team shirts. This is the welcoming rainbow nation that everyone wants to see, and it's real, but the welcome is not universal.

"The World Cup to some it's a happy thing," says youth leader Kauzani. "But for Zimbabweans it's the beginning of the end of our world. We have nowhere to run away now. We thought we could hide in South Africa but the haven is going to be closed."

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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