09 December, 2014

From 'Bethani' to Lindela: The Plight of Malawian Migrants in South Africa

by Harvey C.C. Banda

International migration of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers between Malawi and South Africa is a century-old phenomenon. In fact, for a long time on the one hand countries like South Africa and Botswana have been dubbed labour-receiving countries because of their strong economies. On the other hand, countries like Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and, of late, Zimbabwe are labour-supplying countries because of their faltering economies.

In this article, I reflect on the plight of Malawian ‘illegal migrants’ in South Africa in the wake of a recent South African court ruling regarding the treatment of detainees by Lindela Repatriation Centre. I argue that in spite of the High Court order in South Africa, the detainees’ constitutional rights will, in practice, continue being trampled upon. In my view, this is because the detention and consequent deportations are expected to deter repetition and to ward off potential illegal entrants.

Asylum seekers queue at Dept. Home Affairs (Photo: UNHCR)

For quite some time Malawian migrants have dominated the numbers of immigrants entering South Africa for purposes of taking up wage employment. This was particularly the case during the hey-days of mine migrancy up to the late 1980s. Alongside contract migration to the mines, a large number of migrants entered South Africa clandestinely, as ‘border jumpers’. The latter were categorized as illegal migrants since they entered South Africa without requisite documentation – travel passes and other identity documents.

However, towards the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, mine migrancy entered a decline partly as a result of the process of internalization or localization in which the South African government preferred engaging South African nationals in the mines. In the case of Malawian migrants, specifically, as most people might be aware, the popular HIV/AIDS scourge debate between the South African and Malawian governments also played a significant role.

In the period up to the 1980s, all illegal migrants in South Africa captured by the police were sent in droves to work in farm prisons, one of which was the famous ‘Bethani’ prison. Most former Malawian migrants who once worked in such prisons have fond memories of the suffering and torture that they experienced, hence the popular ‘Bethani stories’. For instance, captives were forced to dig Irish potatoes using their bare hands.

Since the early 1990s a new wave of labour migration replaced mine migrancy: informal migration. Since then different categories of both men and women are involved in the migration process. What is also different is the fact that almost all informal migrants during the contemporary period enter South Africa with valid documentation in the name of passports. In this case, they enter South Africa as legal migrants. However, they are only allowed to stay for a specified period, for instance, thirty days. Since they purportedly go to South Africa to secure wage employment (i.e. fewer numbers enter South Africa for business purposes), they end up overstaying upon which they become ‘illegal migrants’ hunted down by police authorities.
With expired visas, they are arrested and sent to Lindela Repatriation Centre awaiting deportation. As can be depicted here, their illegal status is actually acquired during their stay in South Africa and not necessarily upon entry, as alluded to by the Malawi Human Rights Commission executive director, Grace Malera, in the media recently.

In my view, the Lindela sufferings nowadays are reminiscent of the ‘Bethani stories’ in the old days since captives have no room whatsoever to collect their property including monetary savings ahead of deportation. There have been reports of human rights violations of detainees at Lindela including deprivation of medical care. The situation is bound to continue in view of the xenophobic feelings of South Africans towards foreign migrants who, in their words, ‘steal jobs’ rendering nationals jobless.

Having seen deportees, locally called ‘madipoti’, looking frail and sickly alighting from ‘cargo planes’ from South Africa, and who have left behind hard-earned possessions in South Africa, it is not surprising to find some of the migrants resort to any number of means, including traditional medicinal beliefs, in an effort to avoid such Lindela sufferings and eventual deportations.

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