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Mandela's Vision of Black Unity Fades as South Africa Closes Door to Migrants

FILE: Nelson Mandela casting his ballot in national elections
FILE: Nelson Mandela casting his ballot in national elections

By Tim Cocks

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Munera Mokgoko was just three when apartheid fell. She can barely remember, much less fathom, the swell of hope that accompanied Black liberation three decades ago, shaped by Nelson Mandela's vision of social equality and pan-African solidarity.

"South Africa doesn't have any ubuntu," the 33-year-old said, using a Zulu word meaning humanity, ahead of an election in which the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is pledging to crack down on undocumented migrants from the rest of the continent.

"It's like we don't know how to welcome people."

Mokgoko's Tanzanian husband is among many African migrants who have flocked here since the end of white minority rule and met with the colder side of the "Rainbow Nation," a name used by Mandela and others in the 1990s to describe South Africa's aspirations to be a beacon of multicultural harmony.

Public resentment at immigration has become a hot issue in the run-up to the May 29 vote. It's the first national election in which most people in South Africa – which has a median age of about 28 – have no memory of decades of apartheid, the fight for freedom or the ANC liberation movement's rise to power in 1994.

Idi Rajebo, Mokgoko's 34-year-old husband, and thousands of other hopefuls fleeing rural penury in much poorer nations like Tanzania and Malawi have packed themselves into decrepit minibuses, footslogged through bush and bribed border guards to reach Johannesburg, the "City of Gold."

He and dozens of others ended up crammed into a derelict apartment tower that was being taken over – or "hijacked" – by criminals, where toilets overflowed and drug addicts drooped over stairwells.

"It wasn't nice," said Isaac Simon, 39, a Tanzanian friend of Rajebo's who ran a kitchen on the ground floor.

"We all had the same idea: make some money and get out."

Dozens didn't get the chance. Nine months ago, the Usindiso apartment block burst into flames, killing 77 people – mostly migrants – and leaving hundreds homeless.

Reuters is the first news outlet to comprehensively piece together the stories of many of the survivors, before and after the Usindiso tragedy. This article is based on interviews with about 50 people, including 19 migrant victims, government officials and lawyers representing survivors in a public inquiry into the causes of the blaze, plus hundreds of pages of documents submitted as evidence to the probe, much of it not publicly available.

The accounts turn a rare spotlight on the dire conditions endured by many Africans who arrive here searching for a better life in the continent's most advanced economy, and the hostility they say they've encountered from South African authorities as well as bands of vigilantes who blame foreigners for taking jobs and services away from local people.

The public inquiry concluded this month that the fire was caused by a South African man who was high on crystal meth when he strangled another local to death and set the body alight with petrol to conceal the evidence of the murder.

The probe also blamed neglect by local authorities for allowing the building to become a hazardous zone, rife with guns, murder, drugs and combustible trash, findings that led to the provincial premier pledging to swiftly implement the report's recommendations.


For those who survived the blaze, the ordeal continues. Seven of the 19 migrants interviewed are sleeping on sidewalks or in makeshift tents. Most of the rest said they were living in even more overcrowded and dirty accommodation than the gutted block they escaped, while four have been deported for not having valid immigration papers. In total, 25 survivors of the fire have been deported, according to lawyers representing them at the public inquiry into the fire and as legal counsel during their incarceration.

This month's election could mark the end of an era for post-liberation South Africa, with the long-dominant ANC expected to lose its parliamentary majority for the first time, abandoned by voters incensed at a litany of national woes including a dearth of decent housing, frequent power cuts, water shortages, poor schools, rampant joblessness and high crime.

Most major parties have put forward plans to crack down harder on illegal migrants as they vie for votes in a tight race. Last month, the government published proposals in its official gazette to scale back its commitments to, or withdraw from, the United Nations refugees convention and related treaties, to "deter economic migrants who come to South Africa disguising as asylum seekers," a move it said would free its hand in promptly rejecting asylum claims it deemed bogus.

The white paper provoked an outcry from local human rights groups and three U.N. agencies - the UNHCR refugee body, IOM migration organization and UNICEF children's fund - said the withdrawal would set a negative precedent and could lead to children born in South Africa becoming stateless.

The proposals also provide a jarring counterpoint to the message conveyed by former ANC leader Mandela, who declared Africans were "one people with a common destiny" after becoming the country's first democratically elected president.

"When the history of our struggle is written, it will tell a glorious tale of African solidarity," Mandela told fellow leaders in June 1994. "Africa shed her blood ... so that all her children could be free. She gave of her limited wealth and resources so that all of Africa should be liberated."

The ANC signed up to the refugee treaties unconditionally in 1995 and 1996. It wasn't among the many signatories that secured opt-outs from certain requirements, such as giving refugees the same welfare benefits as citizens. In a 1997 speech to mark Africa Refugee Day, Mandela said the answer to managing large refugee flows, often driven by conflict, was to emphasize people's political and civil rights and for "all of us on the African continent to unite."

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who put forward the white paper, told Reuters in an interview that migrants as a whole were proving a heavy burden on South Africa's resources, citing one hospital, in the northeastern town of Musina, where he said Zimbabweans made up of 70% of maternity ward patients.

Reuters couldn't independently verify those maternity ward figures. Calls to the Musina hospital went unanswered.

Motsoaledi also said undocumented migrants were allowing employers to undercut the minimum wage, and dismissed any suggestion of xenophobia.

"Every country has got the right to safeguard its interests," he said. "Pan-Africanism does not mean entering each other's country illegally."

The government stance is rejected by Andy Chinnah, a human rights activist who has spent the last nine months helping victims of the fire by providing them with meals and helping organize their legal representation for the public inquiry, which examined the causes of the blaze and who should be held responsible for the tragedy.

Chinnah said the treatment of African migrants reminded him of the apartheid system, but now it was Black people from other countries who were "outsiders." Political moves to curb migrant rights amount to a betrayal of Mandela's legacy, he said.

"He wanted one Africa. All the other presidents from the other African countries supported him and the liberation movement to get the freedom that we enjoy today," Chinnah said.

"We didn't fight for just the freedom of us in South Africa. We fought for a free Africa. We fought against colonialism."


The number of immigrants living legally in South Africa has almost trebled to 2.4 million in 2022 – more than 80% of them from sub-Saharan Africa – from 835,000 in 1996, according to the national statistics office. It said migrants now made up about 4% of the population, with Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Malawi the leading countries of origin. In the United States, another country where immigration is a top issue this election year, foreign-born people account for almost 14% of the populace, census data shows.

The official South African figures don't include undocumented migrants, for which the government white paper says there are no reliable figures. It says immigration authorities deport 15,000 to 20,000 undocumented migrants a year, and that the number is rising.

Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, where much of the population struggles to eke out even a meager living from farming, are often willing to take great risks to reach South Africa's more industrialized economy. They pursue work as child carers, waiters, security guards, artisanal miners and shopkeepers, to name a few occupations.

Of the 19 migrant survivors interviewed by Reuters, nine including Rajebo said they were on valid visas but had lost the documents along with most of their belongings in the fire. The other 10 said they didn't have valid immigration papers. Reuters couldn't independently verify their accounts.

There is widespread public frustration with undocumented migrants in South Africa, particularly among young people, according to a survey of 1,000 18-to-24-year-olds published this month by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, a Johannesburg-based rights and conservation advocacy group.

About 88% of respondents said they believed illegal migrants were taking jobs and resources away from South Africans, 86% said they were driving up crime, and 85% thought they should be forcibly removed.

Few movements harness this bubbling anger more thoroughly than Operation Dudula – meaning "force out" in Zulu – a group founded in 2021 with a stated mission to rid South Africa of illegal migrants, whom they blame for many social and economic ills.

The loose-knit street movement has thousands of followers across the country. It has become well known for staging demonstrations against illegal migrant workers, making threats against migrants and sometimes carrying out attacks on foreign-owned businesses.

Operation Dudula registered as a political party late last year, but last month the electoral commission excluded it from the election for missing the deadline for submitting its list of candidates.

About half of the migrant survivors of the Aug. 31 Johannesburg fire interviewed by Reuters said they had been threatened and intimidated by members of Operation Dudula, both before and after the disaster.

Two months before the blaze, members of Dudula swept through the building, clad in their uniform of white T-shirts and combat trousers, demanding to see identification from foreign nationals, searching rooms for drugs and hitting some residents with whips, according to four witnesses interviewed. Their accounts are corroborated by five separate affidavits submitted to the public inquiry and seen by Reuters.

On the day after the fire, as dozens of shell-shocked and homeless survivors sat outside the building, about 30 members of Dudula arrived armed with whips, marched up and began taunting them, according to five witnesses and five affidavits.

"They were shouting, they were singing, they were having joyful laughter," said Omari Hanya, 44, a Tanzanian survivor who was there. "'These foreigners must go back home or die', they were saying in Zulu."

Dudula's Deputy Secretary General Isaac Lesole rejected the allegations that the group harassed or abused migrants in the block. He said the group's code of conduct, which Reuters has viewed, allowed members only to ask if someone has legitimate visa papers, not to demand to see them. He disputed the charge of vigilantism, saying their role was always to alert legitimate authorities.

"Yes, in the past, we've been in trouble for acting on our own," said Lesole. He acknowledged that Dudula members had threatened migrants and attacked their businesses in the past, but insisted the group now operates as whistleblowers within the law.

"Yes, there were members of Operation Dudula outside the Usindiso building following the fire, but it was not celebratory," he added. The aim of the march was to highlight the problem of undocumented migrants and show Dudula had been vindicated in their belief that foreign nationals had taken over too many buildings like this in the town center, he said.

Asked how authorities viewed Dudula, Home Affairs Minister Motsoaledi said that South Africa didn't condone the group's anti-migrant activities. "You don't take the law into your own hands," he added. "You don't follow vigilantism because the country will go into chaos."

The suspect in the fatal blaze, who is in detention and has been charged with 76 counts of murder and 86 counts of attempted murder, hasn't yet entered a plea.

In March, the suspect's attorney publicly stated that he intended to plead not guilty. Since then, the suspect fired his attorney for failing to show up at a court hearing to represent him and a new lawyer hasn't been named, according to an official close to the case who requested anonymity to discuss the matter.


Mokgoko, a South African from Northwest Province, met Rajebo in 2007 in Randfontein, a gold mining town west of Johannesburg, where he was running a grocery shop. Rajebo had arrived a year earlier by bus from the Tanzanian port city of Tanga.

In 2019, they and their three children moved into the fourth floor of the doomed block.

"We had financial problems; it was cheap," Mokgoko told Reuters outside the tin shack where she now resides. Her one-year-old daughter, Mymuna, giggled as she muddied her pink booties in the dirt.

The Usindiso building was formerly a shelter for women who were victims of domestic violence which closed in 2017 due to lack of funding. When Mokgoko and Rajebo arrived, it was being hijacked by criminal gangs charging "rent" to occupants and newcomers. It soon became crammed with desperate new arrivals, with the criminals and residents dividing its space by erecting tin shacks in bathrooms and on staircases, eight fire survivors told Reuters.

More than 500 people were living in the hijacked building at the time of the fire, about half of them migrants, according to law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, which represented 340 survivors in the inquiry. There are no official estimates.

The gangs could be brutal if you didn't pay on time, said Simon, a Tanzanian friend of Rajebo's who ran a kitchen on the ground floor. "They came in groups of five or six, with guns, usually a revolver," he added. "I saw them beat someone with a bottle for being 200 rand ($11) short."

The criminals openly preferred to rent to migrants, eight foreign residents told Reuters, because many were too scared to complain to police, since some were undocumented and others had already been extorted by officers.

Seven foreign fire survivors, including Hanya, told Reuters that men in police uniforms with badges often raided their informal market stalls in and outside the building, asking to see their visa papers. If no valid document was produced, or sometimes even if one was, they said, the men often demanded sums of between 500 and 2,000 rand to avoid jail.

Four of those survivors described being driven off in a van to a quiet street to carry out the transaction. Two said they had been locked up in police cells until friends or relatives came with money to get them out.

Malawian street grocer Kenneth Jiro, 32, survived the fire but lost his 26-year-old brother Manis. He recalled having his stall raided every few weeks by men in police uniforms demanding 700 to 1,000 rand each time.

Xolani Fihla, a spokesman for the Johannesburg police (JMPD), said the department was not aware of any such misconduct by officers in its ranks, but that "it would be considered unlawful if it is happening, and if any evidence is brought to the JMPD then disciplinary action must be taken."


The night after the fire, Rajebo was among 32 migrant survivors relocated by Johannesburg authorities to a pavilion in Hofland Park, a recreation center in a leafy but rundown suburb just outside the city center, six survivors said.

Hanya, a Usindiso survivor who runs a stall selling candy and cigarettes, said the shelter was overcrowded. There was "no privacy, no door on the toilet, barely anywhere to sleep – just a few mattresses," he said. "People just sitting around waiting for food." Soon after arriving, he elected to sleep on the street instead.

That proved a wise decision. On Nov. 15, authorities raided the center, forcing the 32 foreign migrants into security vehicles. The raid was witnessed by a Reuters reporter and cameraman.

Mokgoko remembers seeing Rajebo being hauled towards a group of police trucks and immigration vans outside. "He was with the baby. They were pulling him, saying, 'You'd better give the baby back to the mother because you're not going with them'."

Rajebo handed the infant to Mokgoko, who watched her husband disappear into one of the vans.

Acting Gauteng Home Affairs Chief Albert Matsaung told Reuters on the scene that the officials were taking away the undocumented foreigners to be transported back to their home countries.

The 32 migrants were taken to a police station, arrested, fingerprinted and transferred to Lindela immigrants prison, 40km outside the city center, according to Rajebo and Rashidi Suleiman Abdallah, 32, another Tanzanian who was detained. Their accounts were corroborated by law firm Norton Rose Fulbright and Lawyers for Human Rights, their legal teams, in an ultimately unsuccessful court case to fight their deportation.

On Apr. 10, they were all deported, apart from seven who had escaped in a jail break in March, according to Rajebo, Abdallah and lawyers representing the 32 detainees. Most of the deportees were Tanzanian, with four Malawians.

The Tanzanians landed in Dar es Salaam. They were detained until families could pay a fine to the Tanzanian authorities of 57,000 shillings ($22), levied against nationals returning after being deported. Rajebo got out after a week, when his relatives cobbled the money together.

The Tanzanian immigration department didn't respond to requests for comment on the return of the deportees.

Rajebo told Reuters by phone on Apr. 22 that if he wants to see his wife and children again, he has no choice but to return. Bringing them to Tanzania is not viable because of the lack of economic opportunities, he said, even though he thinks they would be far more welcome than he was in her homeland.

"I'm gonna come back," Rajebo said. "I want a normal family. I don't want to be separated from them."

Even with the hostility he encountered in South Africa, he added, it is still preferable to the grinding poverty of home. South Africa's annual economic output per person is $5,970, versus $1,220 in Tanzania, according to IMF data.

"You go there, you can make some money," Rajebo said, chuckling softly. "That's why we keep going."

(Reporting by Tim Cocks; Additional reporting by Anait Miridzhanian in Johannesburg, Nuzulack Dausen in Dar es Salaam and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Pravin Char)