Zimbabweans clash with police outside home affairs

2010-09-29 07:14

Zimbabweans lining up to claim amnesty at the regional home affairs office in Johannesburg were sprayed with a substance by a police officer.

This happened around 3pm yesterday when disorder broke out among the several hundred Zimbabweans queuing at the office in Harrison Street in the CBD.

A witness inside the building saw the spraying incident.

“One man in a blue SAPS uniform had a can and was spraying a substance that was like a projectile,” said Tendayi Achiume.

As the police officer sprayed, most of the crowd fled, but several stood their ground and refused to leave the entrance.

“It seems they were desperate. They wanted to get inside. There was definitely chaos. There was no order,” said Achiume.

Police spokesperson Warrant Officer Xoli Mbele confirmed that the police had been called in when the crowd of Zimbabweans became disorderly.

“They were fighting among themselves. No one was arrested and no case was opened,” said Mbele.

However, he could not say whether police had used pepper spray.

“I don’t know whether they used pepper spray. The information I have is that the police attempted to calm the situation,” said Mbele.

The Department of Home Affairs could not immediately be reached for comment.

Hundreds of Zimbabweans were taking advantage of an amnesty that would allow them to trade in their fraudulently obtained South African identity documents for valid permits, provided they could supply a valid Zimbabwean passport.

Achiume saw one woman, who was apparently injured, being taken into the home affairs building. Witnesses outside said the woman fainted after she was sprayed.

Zimbabweans in the queue claimed that the police officer had used pepper spray.

“I was here. I saw it. People were crying,” said Gilbert, a Zimbabwean national who declined to give his last name.

Gilbert was not waiting for amnesty because he received permanent residency in 1997. However, his brothers were applying inside.

The Zimbabwean witnesses said the commotion broke out when a home affairs official announced that they would be abandoning the system of a waiting list and instead serve people on a first come, first serve basis.

Achiume said that after the spraying, four to five police vehicles showed up on the scene.

An hour after the spraying incident, police returned to the scene because the queue outside the gate again became disorderly.

This time, they came at the request of the Zimbabweans, who beckoned to them crying out “woza, woza”.

After speaking to home affairs officials at the gate, the police gave disappointing news to the Zimbabwean crowd. The home affairs office would be closed to them until Thursday.

Many of the Zimbabweans said they had been waiting for five days and had been unable to work in that time.

One of them placed the blame squarely on home affairs.

“They stopped using the waiting list. They chucked it out and it caused all this trouble.”

Susan, a Zimbabwean woman, said she had received a number on the list the previous day.

“They gave us a number, but then they destroyed the list,” she said.

“They are treating us like kids.”

She said many of the Zimbabweans were desperate to normalise access to home affairs and had resorted to camping outside the gates.

“People are sleeping here. It is not safe,” said Susan.

As Susan was speaking, a frustrated man interrupted: “If they could allow corruption, it would be better.”

“Wena!” shouted Susan.

“How can you say that? We don’t want corruption.”

Many of the Zimbabweans outside the home affairs office believed in a conspiracy theory that the government was purposefully not processing them before a special amnesty ended on December 31.

“Let me ask you this: Is this a way of getting us papers to stay or is it a way of chasing us away?” asked Gilbert.

Despite the hardships, Gilbert maintained a sense of humour.

“Anyway, we’ll get to go home soon. Mugabe is dying. We just need the permits for a few years until he dies.”

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