People in Zimbabwe face food and medicine shortages, torture, the loss of their democratic rights and the breakdown of society and the rule of law. Many have sought protection and survival in South Africa and other countries. One such place where about 1,500 Zimbabwean and refugees from other African countries as well as some poor South Africans seek shelter and have a degree of social support and dignity is the Central Methodist Church in central Johannesburg, run by Bishop Paul Verryn. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provides health-care support to people staying at the church. Many people living there have HIV and/or TB.
At about midnight on Wednesday 30 January 2008 the South African Police Services raided the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. About 300 people were arrested.
According to Robert Chirikure, a refugee living at the church, the police started to arrest some of the refugees who were sleeping outside on the grounds that they were an obstruction to traffic on a public street. The police proceeded to chase the refugees into the church where they beat up the defenceless occupants that included pregnant women and children. Police also used pepper spray, despite the fact that no one resisted arrest. No search warrant was produced by the police before or during the raid.
The police, who were accompanied by the Department of Home Affairs’ Immigration Unit, then checked the immigration status of the refugees. Those deemed to be without valid documentation or with expired visitors’ visas were taken overnight to Johannesburg Central Police Station with threats of deportation. The police mostly targeted men whom they shouted abuse at and labelled as criminals.
There followed a series of hearings over a two week period at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. A series of perplexing actions by Magistrate Du Pisani in Court 2 led to 15 of the church’s refugees staying in prison for weeks. Several organisations co-ordinated by the Legal Resource Centre in Johannesburg then made an urgent application to the Johannesburg High Court. The High Court judge apologised on behalf of the judiciary for the way the refugees were treated and made a scathing indictment of Magistrate Du Pisani. Justice Sutherland stated:
I must say there is no morsel of exaggeration in respect of the distress with which one reads the founding affidavit. It reminds me of grotesque obscenities of what legal professionals dealt with 20 years ago. We ought in 2008 to have only memories of such abusive behaviour. I recall when former President Mandela addressed the nation saying that “never again, never again” would we have to deal with what was characteristic of the apartheid regime. The irony, a decade after democracy, is to witness in courts in our country such brutal, indifferent and, indeed, cruel treatment of human beings. This really is a shame.
There is ample illustration in this case of the absence of the values that the judiciary must apply. It is a shame on the judiciary. The Magistrate has chosen to abide by the decision of the Court, but on behalf of the judiciary I offer an apology to each and every applicant for the manner in which they were treated. It is hoped that by bringing the atrocity of this case to public attention the risk of it recurring might be minimized.
The efforts of the Legal Resources Centre, AIDS Law Project, TAC, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Amnesty International, Reproductive Health Research Unit, Lawyers for Human Rights, South African Council of Churches, Wits Law Clinic, Deney’s Reitz, Bowman Gilfillan, Webber Wentzel Bowens, advocates from the Johannesburg bar and the Johannesburg Central Methodist Church led to this favourable outcome.