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Harsh Treatment of Zimbabwean Migrants Worries Catholic Bishops in South Africa

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of South Africa's Mthatha Diocese/Credit: Bishop Sithembele Sipuka

A South African Bishop has expressed concern about the “inhumane” manner in which Zimbabweans are being treated in the country since the South African government announced plans to stop the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) which was implemented in 2017 to regularize the stay of undocumented Zimbabweans. 

On January 7, South Africa’s Home Affairs Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, announced that Zimbabwean nationals have until the end of December this year to apply for necessary visas. 

Media reports indicate that some South Africans have started conducting “clean-ups” in what they call Operation Dudula, by evicting Zimbabweans from rented houses and market places. Some Zimbabweans have reportedly been bundled into police trucks.

In an interview with ACI Africa correspondent in South Africa, the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) has said the ill treatment of Zimbabwean nationals dwelling in the country is embarrassing.

“You see on television how humiliated people are when they are put on the back of police vans. Some of them are young women and children,” Bishop Sithembele Anton Sipuka told ACI Africa January 18 on the sidelines of the first annual SACBC Plenary Assembly.

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"That is not acceptable," Bishop Sipuka said.

The Catholic Bishop of South Africa’s Umtata Diocese added that while he understands the government’s reasons for stopping ZEP, “it is very painful” to see the treatment that the Zimbabwean migrants are being given.

The South African Bishop further described the incident where at least three Zimbabwean nationals were reportedly eaten by crocodiles while attempting to cross the Limpopo River into South Africa as “wrenching my heart.”

He proposed that the issue of migrants in South Africa be addressed at a regional level. 

“I think we need to engage at the SADC (Southern African Development Community) level or through IMBISA (Inter-Regional Meeting of Bishops of Southern Africa) to see a humane way of dealing with this,” Bishop Sipuka told ACI Africa correspondent in South Africa.  

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The Bishop who was speaking on the sidelines of SACBC's first physical meeting since January 2020 said attacks on "foreign nationals can also become a scapegoat for our own problems." 

When giving his opening speech at the Plenary held at St. John Vianney Seminary in the Archdiocese of Pretoria, Bishop Sipuka expressed concern about the tendency of South Africans to be "lawless, to drink everywhere, to bully, to make noise without consideration of others, to be violent, especially against women, to drive recklessly and to lack respect for others." 

He said that it is important for Bishops to point out and condemn such tendencies. 

"It may be more effective to point out that such behaviors and attitudes are not only irreligious but are also against the constitutional rights of others. It could be argued that part of this attitude of lawlessness is due to what people observe happening with people in high positions doing wrong and getting away with it, but we need to instill in people that two wrongs do not equal a right," the Bishop said during the ongoing SACBC Plenary that has brought together those at the helm of Catholic Dioceses in Botswana, Eswatini, and South Africa. 

Bishop Sipuka also pointed out the need for Church leaders to implement the Constitution of their respective countries. 

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By helping with the implementation of the Constitution, Bishop Sipuka said that the Church will be playing its role in the advancement of wellbeing and cohesion in society. 

He however said that supporting the laws of the land should "not mean that as Church we agree with everything in the Constitution."

"Reproductive rights in the constitution for example are one example of this divergence between the Church and the Constitution, but for the most part there is convergence between the values we espouse and those prescribed by the constitution," Bishop Sipuka said. 

He also noted that "suppressed tensions often find ways of (re)surfacing in nasty and unexpected ways and this is true of South Africa as well where racial tensions sometimes flare up and are used by some leaders for political ends." 

Like the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu who persistently spoke against inequalities, Bishop Sipuka said, Church leaders are "not to avoid painful and sensitive issues but to tell the truth of these tensions as it is, but in love."

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