Special Report: In South Africa, immigration feeds corrupt officials and race hate

JOHANNESBURG, March 22 (Reuters) – In 2010 police in Johannesburg shot Justin Ejimkonye, a Nigerian migrant, in the leg. The reason why is unclear: It took the police 18 months to charge Ejimkonye with any crime. When they did bring a charge, saying he was carrying cannabis, a public prosecutor decided not to pursue the case for lack of evidence.

The Nigerian says police shot him because he refused to pay them bribes.

Similar claims of police corruption are echoed by hundreds of immigrants in South Africa. Some are resigned to paying out so they can stay in the country. Others feel powerless to act. But over the past seven years, Ejimkonye, who says he is in the country legally, has refused to keep quiet. Now he is pursuing a civil claim for damages. He says law enforcement and immigration officials have continued to brutalise and wrongfully detain him. A high court has twice ordered the police to set him free.

“I still think every day they will come for me,” said Ejimkonye, 31. “I’m fighting for my life.”

The Nigerian, who walks with a limp, is suing South Africa’s minister of home affairs, the local government, a police officer and an official at the Department for Home Affairs for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages as a result of this alleged maltreatment. His case has been filed at a Johannesburg high court and is due to be heard in August. It is a fresh challenge to the misrule and abuse that even the government sees in South Africa’s immigration system.

“This is an important case and the evidence is extensive and conclusive,” said Bulelani Mzamo, Ejimkonye’s attorney. “A lot of people in authority are in deep trouble.”

National police declined to comment on the case; the police investigatory body said it had not been informed about it. Told of the case by Reuters, Mayihlome Tshwete, a spokesman for Home Affairs, said he would look into it. Tshwete said the problems it highlights were “systemic” in the past but are improving under Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, who was appointed in 2014 and has launched a drive against corruption, arresting tens of officials in his department on corruption charges.

South Africans worry that foreigners are taking their jobs and creating crime, and migrants say the immigration system is failing. The same forces that send West Africans to Italy are driving sub-Saharan Africans – nearly half of them from Zimbabwe – into the continent’s richest state. South Africa rejects 95 percent of asylum applications as unjustified. But so far, it has been unwilling to deport those migrants. It houses more than a million people with temporary residence permits who are unsure what is going to happen to them.

That has fostered extortion. More than 20 refugees or migrants interviewed by Reuters said they had suffered corruption and worse at the hands of police and immigration officers. A 2015 report by Lawyers for Human Rights and the African Centre for Migration & Society, two NGOs, found one-third of immigrants experience corruption at South African refugee registration offices. Another report, published last November by NGO Corruption Watch, found more than 300 foreigners complained of extortion, threats and solicitation from government officials. President Jacob Zuma said last month a system of “bribes for permits” poses a serious security risk for the country.