Lawyers for Human Rights and the Legal Resources Centre condemn the arrest by South African Police Service, Johannesburg Metro Police Department and Pikitup of destitute Zimbabweans seeking refuge outside the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg.

We have been informed by the SAPS that the purpose of the raid was to clear the streets and enforce municipal bylaws. Large numbers of SAPS and metro police swooped on 344 people seeking shelter from the cold, shortly before midnight.

The heavy-handed approach of the authorities was an entirely disproportionate response to the alleged infringement of a minor municipal bylaw.

The City of Johannesburg and the Gauteng Provincial Government have been aware of the predicament of the people living in and around the church for well over a year. Despite undertaking to provide shelter for these people, we understand that the government authorised the unlawful police action to arrest them. The only crime they have committed is to be destitute and without shelter.

We express concern at reports that a number of people sustained injuries during the arrests and that a heavily pregnant woman was arrested, and later had to be rushed to hospital. In addition, we are further concerned that a number of children remain in custody, despite requests for their release. In spite of our requests, we have not been permitted to consult with those in detention.

A significant number of this group are asylum seekers who have fled persecution in Zimbabwe. South Africa therefore bears obligations under international law to protect them.

The decision to conduct this operation, late on Friday night, appears to be a cynical and calculated attempt to arrest this group and keep them in detention for the maximum possible period, before they will have an opportunity to appear in court.

In light of these unfortunate events, we call on SAPS to release the detainees immediately and to desist from such operations in future. We further call on the City of Johannesburg and the Gauteng Provincial Government to urgently deliver on their undertaking to provide basic shelter to the people seeking refuge at the Central Methodist Church.

For further information please contact:

Jacob van Garderen, Lawyers for Human Rights, cell: 082 820 3960 email: jacob [at] lhr [dot] org [dot] za


Jason Brickhill, Legal Resources Centre, cell: 073 191 4787 email:  jasonb [at] lrc [dot] org [dot] za