South Africa

OP-ED

What is going on at the Bosasa-run Lindela Repatriation Centre?

What is going on at the Bosasa-run Lindela Repatriation Centre?
Zimbabwian refugees are brought into Lindela repatriation site, Johannesburg, in a police van (Photo: Kim Ludbrook / EPA)

Lindela is a name associated with 22 years of abuse and infamy. The red-brick fortification looms just west of Johannesburg on the outskirts of Krugersdorp. In 1996 it was converted from a miners’ hostel compound – housing synonymous with apartheid – into a holding facility for undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation. The place has never been free of scandal.

The players

There are three central players in South Africa’s deportation process.

The first is the South African Police Service (SAPS), which arrests suspected irregular immigrants and detains them at a police station until their immigration status is determined. Detention must occur at one of the 445 police stations nationwide, declared as adequate places of detention for irregular foreigners pending deportation or transfer to Lindela.

The second is the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), which determines the status of immigrants, charges those found to be irregular, and is legally and administratively responsible for their transport, holding, processing, repatriation and release.

The third and, many would argue, most infamous is African Global Operations (referred to here by its former name Bosasa). Bosasa runs Lindela on the DHA’s behalf, handling all catering, health, safety, accommodation and services at the facility.

An ill-fated alliance

Bosasa has never lost the tender for Lindela. Even in 2005, after 21 deaths were reported at the facility in the space of eight months, Bosasa’s contract was renewed. In 2015 it was renewed again to 2020, meaning Bosasa runs Lindela to this day.

The story began in 1996 when, 12 days after it was requested, Dyambu Operations won the tender to run Lindela. Dyambu, renamed Bosasa four years later, was owned by leaders of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL), who brought in Gavin Watson as CEO.

The league sold its shares after the ANC decided it would no longer hold a direct interest in companies and, by 2004, the company’s shareholders were the Watson family trust (26%); Bosasa directors Carol Mkele and Joe Gumede (51.8%) and the Bosasa Employees’ Trust (22.2%).

The DHA pays Bosasa R9.5-million a month to run Lindela. The contract is not publicly available, so it is not clear what this money goes towards. Both entities have resisted access to information applications for the contract, and Bosasa is precluded from commenting publicly on allegations, referring all queries concerning Lindela to the DHA.

The state of Lindela and deportation

Between 1997 and 2017, human rights groups produced a corpus of reports on the state of Lindela. Issues have varied in breadth and depth over the two decades and have included inadequate medical care and oversight; poor living conditions; instances of abuse of detainees by guards; recurrent detention of minors (including four-year-old Sinoxolo Hlabanzana, who died at Lindela); neglect of the procedural rights of detainees; detention for periods beyond those proscribed by law (30 days, or 120 days with a warrant of court) and restricted access to Lindela for monitoring purposes.

But three burning issues seem to have slipped under the radar:

1. Investigations and information are on the decline

There has been a lack of monitoring and reporting on Lindela in the last two years by humanitarian groups, perhaps owing to their anticipation of the new tender. These groups, including Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and Doctors Without Borders, have access to Lindela for inspection purposes, but only in partnership with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

The 2014 High Court order (SAHRC v Minister of Home Affairs: Naledi Pandor and Others) assigned the SAHRC the constitutional mandate of monitoring Lindela. However, no report on Lindela has been published by the SAHRC since its 2017 annual report. The SAHRC did not respond to our enquiry on this and other matters, including the date of its last inspection.

2. A cash cow for a disgraced Bosasa

In 2019 at the Zondo Commission, after the allegations of Bosasa’s systematic bribery of government officials for tenders, former Bosasa employee Frans Vorster revealed that Lindela funds have been siphoned annually into executives’ pockets over the festive season. Bosasa would allegedly buy 2,000 extra mattresses for the facility near the end of the year, and ensure they were occupied, in order to cash in on the DHA’s pre-existing “per person per night” fee.

The DA reported, after its February 2019 inspection of Lindela, that “the facility is underutilised as only 800 irregular immigrants are currently being detained at the facility, which has the capacity of accommodating 5,000 people”.

We contacted Modiri Matthews, the chief director of the inspectorate at the DHA. He explained that, on average, between 1,500 and 2,000 deportees are processed at Lindela each month, but if a large number of deportees are cleared in a particular week the occupancy level can be low until another group is admitted.

Even so, Lindela is operating at about 30% of its full capacity. So, what is happening to the R9.5-million per month (R1.5-billion over the last 15 years) of taxpayer money that is pocketed by Bosasa to run the facility?

The DA and COPE have called for the contract to be cancelled immediately and for funds to be returned. Matthews commented that a new tender process will commence for the contract that expires in November 2020.

3. Lindela isn’t full. Don’t we have an undocumented immigrant problem?

It emerged in Parliament in February 2019 that SAPS is burdened by having to detain and accommodate arrested immigrants in jails.

A 2018 investigation found that about 9,100 immigrants move through SAPS cells per month. SAPS suggested that if an extension is added to a detainee’s initial 48-hour status-determination period, the individual should become the responsibility of the DHA and be moved to Lindela within seven days.

But SAPS’ statistics (of 9,100 suspected irregular immigrants arrested per month, or 109,200 in 2018) are hardly reconcilable with the DHA’s reported 15,033 deportations in the 2017/18 financial year. They suggest that only 14% of suspected irregular immigrants arrested in South Africa in 2018 ended up being deported.

Like citizens, foreign nationals have the right not to be arrested or detained arbitrarily.

SAPS can arrest an individual as an irregular foreigner in terms of the Immigration Act on “reasonable grounds”. The scope of an officer’s discretion was clarified in Udle v Minister of Home Affairs and Another, in which the court confirmed that an officer must exercise discretion in favour of freedom.

Spot checks and sweeps are included as a modus operandi for the apprehension of suspected foreign nationals, although they fail to satisfy the criteria of arrest on “reasonable grounds” and contribute to a high rate of unfounded arrests. SAPS’ mass arrests of foreign shop owners in August 2019 (that led to the xenophobic resurgence) and foreign churchgoers in October 2019 are recent examples. After the raid at the Full Gospel Church in Mthatha, all of those arrested (Congolese refugees, including the pastor) were found to be legal and released.

LHR, in their 2018 letter to Cyril Ramaphosa, wrote that “people are wrongfully and unlawfully detained under the current immigration legislation, that the process of arrest and detention of would-be immigrants is arbitrary and, therefore violates the rights of citizens and other residents”. They argued that there is strong evidence to suggest that black and darker-skinned individuals are more vulnerable to arbitrary arrest.

Ultimately, the unscrupulous arrest and detention of immigrants appears an inefficient and costly preoccupation. SAPS resources could be better channelled into addressing rising crime levels, and the DHA’s Lindela budget could be better applied to address border control, corruption and mismanagement in the migration regime.

A shift from Lindela and deportation

Since the introduction of the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project in 2010, used to regularise undocumented Zimbabwean immigrants until conditions in their home country improve, deportations have plummeted. In the context of the government’s sustained emphasis on deportation, this suggests that there are far fewer irregular immigrants in South Africa.

But the government is yet to revise its preoccupation with irregular immigration – a fixation that is costly and inefficient, criminalises immigrants and fuels xenophobia. Of course, the entity that has stood to benefit most from the status quo is Bosasa and all those officials that solicit bribes from undocumented immigrants or share in Bosasa’s loot. DM

Tove van Lennep is a political and economic analyst and researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation.

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