Grass not much greener - Zimbabwean exiles suffer xenophobia

( dpa )- "If (Zimbabwe's ruling) Zanu-PF are going to rig these elections, I think it will be difficult for South Africans to tolerate us for another five years," a man says rising to his feet in the front pew of the church. "I'm afraid of what might happen."

Murmurs of agreement can be heard amid the cacophany of rachitic coughing rising from the 300 or so mostly Zimbabwean refugees gathered for Wednesday night's weekly service in the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg.

Three days before Zimbabweans go to the polls to elect a new president, parliament and local councils, Bishop Paul Verryn has thrown the floor to open remarks from some of the 1,300 refugees that bed down on the floor of the church each night.

Many express concerns that the elections, in which 84-year-old authoritarian President Robert Mugabe faces the strongest challenge yet to his 28-year rule, will not be free and fair.

"I think God should probably take him (Mugabe) to another place," another young man pips up to whistles and peals of laughter.

In Zimbabwe, where six-figure inflation wrought by Mugabe's disastrous policies has made a loaf of bread a luxury item, several people told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa they felt Saturday's elections, was a matter of life and death.

For Zimbabwean exiles in South Africa, given the rising tide of xenophobia targeted at African migrants that drove a mob to burn to death two Zimbabweans in a township near Pretoria this week, the outcome could also be dramatic.

Twelve people have been arrested in connection with Monday's killings in Brazzaville squatter camp, where residents have complained of "foreigners taking our jobs."

If Mugabe is reelected president for another five years the flow of refugeess into Africa's richest economy is expected to quicken and "that is going to creater greater anxiety in South Africa," says Bishop Verryn.

Xenophobic is on the rise in poor communities here, which have been bloated by the arrival of millions of migrants from poorer neighbouring countries in recent years. Zimbabweans alone are thought to number between 1 and 4 million.

The government has adopted a laissez-faire attitude. "I personally think its (illegal Zimbabwean migration) something we have to live with," President Thabo Mbeki said last year.

Apart from being blamed for taking jobs "and our women" Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and other black migrants are also often blamed for high crime rates - without any evidence they are overrepresented in criminal acts.

That erroneus perception is, in turn, fuels increasing police brutality.

"They urinate on us while we're sleeping," says Mike, a 38-year- old civil engineer from Zimbabwe, one of the dozens of "overflow" refugees at the church, who sleeps outside while waiting for a space to free up inside - usually when somebody is deported.

"If they see a foreigner they think you're a thug," he says. "They say 'you people, where did you get all this money" - ignoring the fact that illegals carry a lot of cash because they cannot open a bank account.

Vincent Moaga, spokesman for the South African Human Rights Commission, says xenophobia is more prevalent since the end of apartheid in 1994.

"It appears as if black South Africans have internalized the mistreatment they suffered under apartheid and are now directing it at people from across the continent," he says.

The failure of 14 years of democracy to deliver Nelson Mandela's promise of a "better life for all" as evidenced by the millions still living in shacks, has also soured South Africans towards migrants, says Moaga.

Verryn points out that many of the Zimbabweans who smuggle into South Africa are professionals like Mike, whose skills are in desperately shortly supply and who don't compete with locals for jobs. The church harbours about 500 teachers.

"What we need is a rigorous national anti-xenophobia campaign," he says.

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