Those Fleeing Zimbabwe Find Status Uncertain

If South Africa had a Statue of Liberty, it would be facing Zimbabwe. Millions of Zimbabwe's tired, poor and huddled masses have streamed across the border over the past several months. Their status is complicated: South Africa is reluctant to label them "refugees,'' a loaded word under international law.

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If South Africa had a Statue of Liberty, it would be facing Zimbabwe. Millions of Zimbabwe's tired, poor and huddled masses have streamed across the border. South Africa is reluctant to call them refugees because that's a loaded word under international law. It would also be a public acknowledgement that Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, has made a mess of a country that was once among the most prosperous in Africa.

From Johannesburg, South Africa, NPR's Gwen Thompkins has this report.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Tonight at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, there is a lemon meringue pie on the dinner counter. The pie looks perfect. It has been kissed by the oven to a toasted almond color. Whoever manages to cut that thing into the more than 1,200 slices needed for everyone here to have a share deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. ROBERT MANURUQUE(ph) (Nutritionist): I heard that South Africa is good. If you go there, things are easier. But ON the contrary, it wasn't easier, is what I thought.

THOMPKINS: Robert Manuruque is a nutritionist from Zimbabwe's capital of Harare. It's about 8:30 in the evening and he has not eaten since last night. But contrary to expectation, Manuruque is in a pretty good mood. He's got a job at a printing shop in Johannesburg and sleeps at the church. He can buy groceries to send to his family in Harare, and he is ever confident that one day he will sleep next to his wife again - far from Zimbabwe.

Mr. MANURUQUE: The country is bad. Yes, we understand it. But I don't have any idea whatsoever I can do that country. But the best effort is to run away.

THOMPKINS: Manuruque and millions of his countrymen left Zimbabwe because inflation put milk and bread out of reach for them, or because they were in danger - identified as political enemies of Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, and his ZANU-PF party. The lucky ones cram into the church at night, where people eat erratically and cough incessantly, and where tuberculosis has killed three people in recent weeks. The unlucky ones have to make do some place else.

Excuse me. So sorry.

The Central Methodist Church is huge. But at night, there are so many people sleeping on the floor, on the stairs, in the corridors and the doorways, that it's impossible to take three steps without having to climb over someone.

Come morning, the Zimbabweans who took refuge at the church and elsewhere in South Africa walk in to the light of day and try to look like they belong in a foreign land. Some work in businesses, some sell crafts on the street, some beg at red lights from car to car, some don't do anything. It's been this way day in and day out for years.

Bishop PAUL VERRYN (Central Methodist Church, Johannesburg): God has got an amazing sense of humor.

THOMPKINS: That's Bishop Paul Verryn. He leads the Methodist mission here in Johannesburg. Verryn says he suspects that his church was built from the riches amassed in South Africa's lucrative mining industry. And for generations, the mines in South Africa have relied on low-paid, migrant workers drawn from the poorest in southern Africa - many from Zimbabwe.

Bishop VERRYN: I'd say, you must be very careful of what you do with God, because God has a way, ultimately, of returning resources to where they belong. There is a huge opportunity for us to make a difference because we happen to be one of the wealthier economic systems, and to be taught by fellow Africans what it really means to be human.

THOMPKINS: But so far, South Africa's government has left the burden of caring for its displaced Zimbabwean population to charity.

Tiyani Rikhotso is a spokesman for the ruling African National Congress. He says when he passes the Central Methodist Church downtown or Zimbabweans anywhere, he only sees legal and illegal aliens. And the ones here illegally have no protection from being deported. Rikhotso says ANC leadership believes that Mugabe and his political opponents must solve their problems within Zimbabwe.

Mr. TIYANI RIKHOTSO (Spokesperson, African National Congress): The president has stated very clearly that there is nothing that we are going to do except for continuing engaging the opposing parties in Zimbabwe, which is the government, and the opposition.

THOMPKINS: Moeletsi Mbeki is an economist and a major critic of the government's handling of Zimbabwe's meltdown. He supports the political opposition in Zimbabwe. Moeletsi is also the brother of South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki.

Mr. MOELETSI MBEKI (Economist): The government in South Africa is now totally paralyzed. Somehow, they thought that there would be no consequences of what Mugabe was doing for South Africa. Mugabe is a dictator. He rigs elections. He brutalizes the population. Thousands of people have been killed by Mugabe's security forces. Now, there are millions of Zimbabweans flooding into South Africa. But it's too late. They don't know what to do.

THOMPKINS: President Mbeki has been a mediator in talks between Mugabe's ruling party and the opposition. He has reportedly tried to persuade Mugabe to treat his political opponents better, to not jail them unlawfully or beat them or worse. But Mugabe appears to have made no meaningful concessions. And his chances for reelection next year look better than ever.

Immanuel Hlabangana is a Zimbabwean human rights activist in Johannesburg. He says the world must resign itself to the fact that Mugabe won't budge.

Mr. IMMANUEL HLABANGANA (Human rights lawyer): There must be an involvement from the international community in resolving the crisis in Zimbabwe. And not from a powerful force speaking to a little boy, because Mugabe is willing to have all of us die in that country and he will remain in power. He is that adamant.

THOMPKINS: There are signs that the situation on the ground in Zimbabwe is continuing to deteriorate. Last week, a planned labor strike across that country fizzled. And over the weekend, hungry Zimbabweans near Harare reportedly tried to kill and eat a lost giraffe.

Mr. HLABANGANA: Zimbabweans are kept busy on a daily basis by the need for basic things, food, water. And so the energy to be involved in the struggle is nothing.

THOMPKINS: In downtown Johannesburg, those Zimbabweans who can afford it buy dry goods and pack them onto rickety old buses headed home.

Martha Moyo(ph) still lives in Zimbabwe. She's going back this afternoon with food for her children. Moyo used to be a schoolteacher in Harare, but inflation made her salary worthless. She's now a street peddler.

Ms. MARTHA MOYO (Johannesburg resident): You know, I've done marketing, P.R. I've done (unintelligible) coordination. I've got a degree in English and communication studies. I actually intend to do a master degree in gender studies next year.

THOMPKINS: More and more often, people just like Moyo are getting off the bus in Johannesburg and staying. They are the folks you step over at the Central Methodist Church downtown.

Again, Bishop Paul Verryn.

Bishop VERRYN: When they walk through the door of this church, they simply are human beings. They're not even Zimbabweans. Because I'm not a hundred percent certain that Jesus even knows the difference of Zimbabwe or Johannesburg from Pretoria. And I don't think these boundaries mean a thing to him or to God himself.

THOMPKINS: In secular terms, they are your tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breath free.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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