JOHANNESBURG (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 brutalize 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.
A spate of attacks against Nigerians in Johannesburg sparked protests in February and revenge attacks against South African businesses in Nigeria. This month South Africa’s Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, after meeting the Nigerian foreign minister, said she would launch a scheme to track and deter xenophobic attacks. At least 66 foreign Africans in South Africa were killed in xenophobic attacks between January 2015 and January 2017, according to the African Centre for Migration & Society.
The chaos has its roots in the end of apartheid in 1994, when Nelson Mandela helped draw up a constitution with some of the world’s most generous human rights laws, in a bid to redress the divides under white-minority rule. The constitution grants people seeking asylum many of the same rights as South Africans. Now Gigaba wants to change the law to crack down on so-called “economic migrants” by reducing asylum-seekers’ rights and introducing a quota system.
“Unfortunately we fear a large-scale flare-up of xenophobic violence is just around the corner,” said Wayne Ncube, an attorney at the Johannesburg Law Clinic. “It just takes a spark.”
Almost all the African immigrants Reuters spoke to said corruption and violence were part of their daily lives. A group of Zimbabweans living in Yeoville, a Johannesburg suburb popular with African migrants, described a well-organized system established by the police.
Officers in their area came to collect money each week, the migrants said. Those who didn’t pay were arrested, they said, and eventually sent to a Johannesburg migrant detention center, Lindela, where thousands of people are still awaiting a decision on their asylum applications.
“If you pay, you’re fine. If you don’t have money then you’re arrested or beaten up until you can pay,” said 28-year-old taxi driver Thando Banda, from Zimbabwe.
Yeoville police declined to comment.
Ejimkonye, the Nigerian, says he arrived in South Africa in October 2005 and was issued with various permits until 2007 when he married a South African, which entitled him to stay permanently on a spousal visa. He had dreamed of a future as a soccer player, but by early February 2010 was running a hair salon in Germiston, a suburb of Johannesburg.
One day, he says, police stopped him as he was driving his Toyota truck. They demanded 900 rand ($70), which he refused to pay. The police impounded his vehicle and charged him a fine to recover it.
A few weeks later, on Feb. 25, the same police officers stopped him again, documents drawn up by both Ejimkonye and the police show. Ejimkonye says he told them he would not pay any bribes. At that, he says, police officer John Kichener Johnstone removed his police issue Beretta revolver from its holster and fired a 9 millimeter round into the back of Ejimkonye’s leg.
The Germiston police station did not respond to requests for comment, or to contact Johnstone. Savage Jooste & Adams, the law firm representing the local government and officer Johnstone, declined to comment. The firm has submitted a defense in Ejimkonye’s case, Ejimkonye’s lawyers said.
In a separate statement prepared for a court hearing that in the end did not take place, Johnstone said he and his police colleagues were doing “special duties,” which he did not detail at the time. They went to question a group of men, including Ejimkonye, who were standing at a street corner. Johnstone saw the “bud of a fire-arm at the rear of his (Ejimkonye‘s) pants,” said the statement, seen by Reuters.
Ejimkonye then tried to escape and a chase ensued, Johnstone said in the statement. Hurdling bushes, Johnstone said, he shouted warnings at Ejimkonye several times before opening fire as a last resort. A police crime docket drawn up by the Germiston police on the day of the shooting said Ejimkonye was guilty of “pointing (a gun) at an officer.”
Ejimkonye says he did not have a gun. He collected two witness statements which supported his version of events. Neither they nor Johnstone’s statement were submitted in court because the police did not actually bring charges against Ejimkonye at that time.
Instead, in April 2010 Ejimkonye launched his own lawsuit against the police. That grew into the claim that is due in court in August.
National police spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi said questions about Ejimkonye’s case against police would be dealt with by the internal Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). The IPID spokesman said it would not have looked into it automatically because in 2010 it was “not obligated to investigate cases of shooting unless the shooting resulted in a death.”
Tshwete, the spokesman for the home affairs ministry, could not comment on Ejimkonye’s case but said there were some “rotten apples” in the police and home affairs ministry. “We are not saying all police and home affairs officers are saints.”
In Ejimkonye’s case, a court eventually found that law enforcement officials had broken the law.
In August 2011, 18 months after Ejimkonye was shot in the leg, police summoned him to face a charge of possession of “dagga,” or cannabis. The public prosecutor withdrew that charge due to lack of evidence, a Department of Justice document shows.
Ejimkonye said he subsequently faced more intimidation and physical attacks. On Oct. 14, 2013, according to documents submitted by Ejimkonye’s lawyers, Johnstone and colleagues raided the Nigerian’s home in the middle of the night and took him to the police station where he was kept for 36 days.
A month into his detention an immigration officer, Boitumelo Mokobi, revoked his visa, saying it had been illegally obtained. Mokobi could not be reached for comment.
With his visa revoked, Ejimkonye became an illegal immigrant. The immigration authority sent him to Lindela, the detention center in Johannesburg. There he spent the next six months, court documents show - well beyond the maximum declared by law.
In April 2014, Judge Segopotje Mphahlele of the South Gauteng High Court ordered his release. The judge ruled that the police and the government had “dismally failed to comply with the applicable requirements of the Immigration Act” and Ejimkonye had been unlawfully detained.
The Nigerian thought he was free.
But on May 27, 2014, Ejimkonye says, Johnstone and his crew broke into his home, assaulted him and threw him into the boot of a car. They took him to another police station where, a June 2014 court ruling says, he was held on charges of being an illegal immigrant.
Again, his lawyer applied to the high court, which ordered his release. Judge Mphahlele found this second arrest and detention had also been unlawful, and ordered that police should not approach Ejimkonye until his immigration situation was clarified.
The Home Affairs department said last year that it had arrested more than 60 of its officials for offences including false documentation, bribery, aiding and abetting, impersonation, revenue theft and fraud. But migrants say brutality and demands for cash are still commonplace.
Faaruq Mohammed, a Somali who has a temporary residence permit while his application for asylum is considered, told Reuters he was beaten and refused legal representation at a police station. He has been waiting for a permanent decision on his application for more than two years.
“You worry each time you leave your house that the police will stop you. Sometimes they ignore your permit and you have to pay or be arrested,” Mohammed said. “Police stations and Lindela are not good places. Bad people there. You don’t know if you will come out alive.”
At the refugee registration center in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, hundreds of immigrants press against fences hoping to get answers about their asylum applications as overrun officials shout orders and beat back the crowd with sticks.
Many have been coming for years and described how they had to pay to get a renewal of their refugee permit.
“No one really cares if you’re a real asylum-seeker or not,” said Paul Kazadi, a Democratic Republic of Congo national who admits he has been paying bribes to extend his stay in South Africa for three years. “It doesn’t really benefit anyone to change things. Immigration officers and police get money and we don’t get deported. We work with the system we’ve got.”
Police declined to comment. Home Affairs spokesman Tshwete said there is corruption at South Africa’s refugee centers, but that they have improved and will be further reformed.
In February, President Zuma opened a renovated refugee center in Pretoria equipped with new technology aimed at reducing corruption, overcrowding and the role of criminal syndicates. In his opening speech, he said, “Government will not tolerate corruption in the refugee reception centers as well as in the documentation process.”
Ejimkonye has gone into hiding. He is suing the local government for 2.5 million rand in damages for personal injury and the Home Affairs ministry for 2 million rand for illegal detention, his lawyers say.
He also hopes his civil suit can help reinstate his visa.
“The police and immigration officials always think they will get away with it,” said attorney Mzamo. “With Ejimkonye’s case, we want to send a clear message that it’s not business as usual.”
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Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and Kenichi Serino in Johannesburg; Edited by Sara Ledwith, Richard Woods and Janet McBride