By Anthea Paelo
An Eyewitness News’ headline caught my eye the other day, “Zim home affairs call deportations ‘inhumane’”. Being a foreign national myself, I’m drawn to news articles like this but with the careless disregard of a person confident of their legal status in the country.
This changed one weekend last month. It was a Saturday like any other, a warm spring day. I was in town running a few errands when a couple approached me. She was shorter, with a hairstyle that needed attention. He looked better-put together and it was he who pulled out a badge and identified himself as a police officer. My interest was piqued, anything to break the monotony of a Saturday afternoon.
They proceeded to pull me away to a corner and ask for my passport.
I do not as a rule move around with my passport. Anything can happen as any traveller knows well and acquiring the document again with the requisite visa is a headache I would rather not contemplate. My response to the esteemed officer of the law was to let him know I did not have it but was in possession of my University of Johannesburg staff ID, which I then presented.
The lady, I did not see her badge, and so not entirely sure if she was a police officer as well, then made vague references to what the minister said on TV. She did not explain herself but I assumed the minister had made comments about immigrants having to constantly carry their passports. I have since tried to find that speech by the minister to no avail.
Perhaps I did not use the right search words.
At any rate, I told her I did not have a television. The truth, although it might have been uttered a bit haughtily. I told them the passport was home. I ask if I should get a cab to take them and myself home where I can show them the passport. They replied in the negative. I was not surprised, my request was a little optimistic. I then asked what the solution was and they said I would have to go with them. I agreed and asked them to lead the way.
While on the way to the police station, it occurred to me that I ought to call someone. My housemate had my room key, I could ask her to find my passport and bring it. During the course of the conversation, I think it might have dawned on my arresting officers that I really was not going to pay them the required bribe. The policeman latched onto the fact that I told my friend to drive my car. He stopped and turned to me,
“Eh, you even have a car, why don’t you just leave us?”
I was not sure what he meant. He reiterated in much simpler language, “You can go.”
It has been a month since and I cannot help thinking about the incident and realising that I am one of the lucky ones. What if I had had no one to call, or did not have my phone with me? Would I have had to spend the night in jail? (A friend of mine later told me that if I had gone to jail they would not have let me out till Monday because it was the weekend.)
I guess it would have been easier if I had been willing to pay the required bribe.
So when I read articles such as the one above, particularly the tawdry comments that follow, it is no longer with indifference. There are stories there. And while I understand the necessity of requiring immigrants to present legal documents in certain situations, I remember the indignity of the moment. Of being randomly cornered, having people walk past and turn around to stare at this person “caught” by the police. I say that knowing that I am what may be considered a middle-class black woman and that my situation was extremely mild.
I do not know how the ordinary foreigner, whose employment necessitates their being in town daily, handles this kind of situation, whether they are legal or illegal immigrants. Do they have a steady amount of cash they keep for such occasions or risk carrying their passports daily?
I am not sure but perhaps we should be listening to more of these stories.
Anthea Paelo is an economist and junior researcher at the Centre for Competition, Regulation and Economic Development at the University of Johannesburg. She is an avid reader and writer. Twitter: @AntheaPaelo