The first batch of 433 Zimbabwean victims of xenophobia attacks in South Africa arrived on Tuesday aboard the buses which the government dispatched to bring them back.
from our correspondent in Harare
Officials said the group had been picked up from various centres in Johannesburg, where the worst cases of the attacks occurred. However, instead of a warm welcome, scores of the returnees were quickly arrested at the border town of Beitbridge as police accused them of loitering.
Immigration sources in Beitbridge say police in riot gear rounded up about 200 people most of them youths who have fled violence in South Africa and bundled them into trucks claiming that they were loitering.
Police in Beitbridge last night confirmed the arrests adding that more people would be arrested following a blitz on prostitutes and criminals.
“We have arrested over 400 people and the operation is going on “, Said
Inspector Joseph Mleya.
“Those arrested are people we believe have been loitering and engaging in various criminal activities. We will screen them and release those we feel are genuine youths who are returning back home following violence in South Africa”.
At the Beitbridge border post thousands of Zimbabweans, most of them illegal, cross borders continue to flock back into the country. The atmosphere at the border post resembled that around the Christmas holiday where thousands of Zimbabweans cross back home to visit their families.
Chief immigration officer Denis Chitsaka said” We have been busy every day as we handle people who are running away from violence […] We normally deal with such a large number of people on holidays like the
Christmas and New Year holidays”.
Last week, the Zimbabwean government dispatched 10 buses to South Africa to rescue nationals caught up in the xenophobic attacks which swept through many South African cities in the past three weeks.
Zimbabweans are thought to be the most affected by the attacks, because they make up the largest number of African migrants in South Africa, at about 3 million.
The attackers accused the African migrants of taking away jobs, contributing to price hikes for basic goods and services and fuelling crimes. Officials said the buses would do many more runs into South Africa to bring home more Zimbabweans.
The Mugabe government has also promised to resettle some of the returnees on land seized from white farmers in the last few years under its controversial agrarian reforms.
Sources say the Matabeleland South governor, Angeline Masuku, was waiting for them ostensibly to welcome them back. But the ceremony to welcome distraught Zimbabweans fleeing from violent attacks on foreigners was soon transformed into a Zanu-PF campaign rally, with the
governor promising each returnee a piece of land. There was a catch in the offer, however. They must a vote for Mugabe in the forthcoming presidential election run-off, she said.
Masuku, who is also a Zanu-PF politburo member, shocked the returnees when she openly urged them to vote for Mugabe in the election that pits the long-time President against Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) president, Morgan Tsvangirai.
“But her overtures were immediately rejected by many among her audience, who refused to register for the promised land” said the immigration official.
Zanu-PF is employing every trick in the book, including violence, shutting out the opposition from rural areas once more and banning non-governmental organisations from distributing food aid, in a bid to secure victory in the forthcoming crucial poll.
The party has also launched a campaign blitz on state radio, television and newspapers, calling on the electorate to vote for Mugabe.
But having lost to Tsvangirai on March 29 by about 100 000 votes, the prospects for a dramatic recovery by Mugabe look decidedly bleak, given the ongoing brutal punishment of voters, especially rural, suspected to have backed the MDC leader.
“This is our country,” said Masuku. “It can only develop if we pull together. But for that to be achieved we need to defend it from re-colonization.”