The announcement a couple of weeks ago that the Home Affairs department was issuing a moratorium on deportation of Zimbabwean refugees was a positive sign to those Zimbabweans languishing in the limbo of undetermined status here. The moratorium was supposed to be in place while Home Affairs figured out how to implement the distribution of temporary six month residence permits to Zimbabweans who did not have another kind of permit.

Things aren’t looking good on that front. In the border town of Musina, SAPA is reporting that police are continuing with deportations despite the Home Affairs order. One of the problems with immigration policy is that there’s too much of an incentive for border police to behave in an extortionary way, instead of focusing on enforcing actual border policy. I would not be surprised if demands for money and / or sex are going right along with the deportations that SAPA is reporting. A mere order from Home Affairs is not likely to do much without increased attention paid to the everyday practices and lives of those implementing the policy on the ground.

Closer to me in Johannesburg, UNHCR seems to have finally begun moving some of the migrants staying at the Central Methodist Church to the building in Rossetenville about which I reported two weeks ago. Still, these problems seem far from a resolution:

Godfrey Charamba, chairman of the Methodist Refugee Community, told The Zimbabwe Times Sunday that following uncertainty over their continued stay at the new places, most refugees especially economic immigrants who fled their country’s decade-long economic crisis, now had “second thoughts” about remaining in South Africa.

“This relocation issue has affected us badly,” said Charamba in an interview.

“We have not been told on what will happen to us at the expiry of the lease period in those shelters, meaning that our chances of remaining there after that three months period are very slim.”

Charamba said that most refugees had already made it known to both the church authorities, Gauteng Local Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they now wished to return to Zimbabwe.

“A team comprising UNHCR, the mayor’s office and local government officials came here last week and asked whether we wanted to be relocated locally or to be taken back to Zimbabwe,” said Charamba. “Most people said that they wanted to return home.

“In fact, more than 800 refugees have said they prefer to be repatriated and now we are waiting for that to happen, because our stay in the new shelters will be short-lived.”

Charamba, who also attended that meeting, added that besides the three-month lease at some of the shelters, rentals there were so expensive that it would be unsustainable for the refugees to remain there.

Allow me to get back to something I let fly before I got caught up in the final dash of the campaign. The Daily Sun might be the most relevant newspaper in South Africa.

I’ve made this claim to academics, journalist colleagues, and — perhaps misguidedly — to editors of other South African newspapers. The first uniform response is a hearty chuckle followed by a “you can’t be serious” rejoinder. Oh, but I am.

To most upper/middle-class literate, educated South Africans, the Daily Sun is known for its fantastic tales of schoolgirls overtaken by evil spirits, tokoloshes, sensational revenge murders, and other sordid tales common to the tabloid newspaper genre. And when I say “tabloid” I’m not just talking about the size of the page on which these stories are printed.

So why do I find myself paying the two rand for a copy usually at least twice a week? Because the Daily Sun has stories about the real lived experience of the working-class and poor in this country that are often invisible to the rest of the country. I realized this first hand when the situation of refugees overflowing out of the Central Methodist Church hit the pages of the Sun a full day before it was picked up by any of the other newspapers. Page through the classifieds, and you can see that the sexual preoccupations of many blue collar South Africans — documented in Jonny Steinberg’s absolutely essential Three Letter Plague — are alive and well. The daily feature called “Home Affairs Horrors” documents how chronic mismanagement of home affairs offices has left many South Africans without the means to pursue basic employment and education. It also exposes a greater preoccupation with the bureaucratic machinery of delivery that dominates the lives of South Africa’s working-class. Mention allocation of RDP houses to a resident of Alexandra, for instance, and I near guarantee that this worry lies beneath whatever response you will receive.

Perhaps the greatest example of the Daily Sun‘s relevance as a voice for the poor is its coverage of the xenophobic riots last year. For those with any familiarity with the Sun’s coverage of that ugly episode, you might be apopleptic at this point. WHAT?! Isn’t the Sun the same newspaper that stoked xenophobic anger as the violence raged on?

To that I answer, “Yes, but.”

Wits journalism professor Anton Harber shows how the situation is much more complex than it may at first seem. In an essay eventually printed in a fantastic collection of essays about the riots, he compares the coverage of the affair in both the Sun and the Star. When I bring up this essay, most people tend to point to the fact that Harber notes that the Sun had rather inflammatory coverage while the violence was going on. I think this misses Harber’s greater point, which is that if you had been reading the Sun before the outbreak of violence, what eventually transpired would have been no surprise at all. Frustrations about immigrants taking jobs and houses away from South African citizens living in townships were clear for weeks leading up to the riots, as were the violent rumblings themselves.

The Sun is far and away the most popular newspaper in South Africa. It sells hundreds of thousands more papers than its nearest competitor. The vast majority of this consumer public is much poorer than readers of probably any other newspaper in the country (the Sowetan is probably the only other paper that can shake a stick at the Sun‘s demographics). It’s worth recognizing, then, that while perceived “low,” mass cultural productions may be flawed in terms of a given prescribed notion of social development, it is also important to cultivate those productions that give a voice to people who may otherwise be voiceless. The Sun contains a lot of sensationalist nonsense. At the same time, it expresses a viewpoint that has great currency among often hidden, and rather large swathes of the South African population. Put plainly, to dismiss a publication like the Sun is to do so at your own peril if you care at all to find out what is really going on in this highly complex country.

From an article of mine published today by The Times:

Confusion reigns at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg CBD, as there has been little progress in arrangements to move the estimated 2,840 primarily Zimbabwean migrants staying at the church.

Frustrated residents said that they were told that the move would begin last week. Once that passed without any action, they had expected to move this week.

Local government, in collaboration with the UN High Commission on Refugees, decided this week to postpone any planned move until better communication could be established with those staying at the church, said local government spokesperson Lebo Tladinyane.

Read the rest here (and watch a related video here).

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees claims that keeping Zimbabwean refugees in camps in Musina, a border town in the Limpopo province, will expose the migrants to xenophobic attacks. Many of those who already left Musina after the South African government closed down the last temporary camps there ended up seeking shelter at the Central Methodist Church in the Central Business District of Johannesburg. Last week, the church faced a suit alleging that the refugees roaming the streets around the church were driving away customers from local businesses. Gauteng province MEC Dorothy Mahlangu stated immediately that she opposed sheltering the new arrivals in the church.

So where are these people going to go? For all the electioneering going on right now, immigration is nowhere to be found on any party’s agenda.

Newspapers here have a mixed record covering the ongoing immigration crisis, which led to a surprised reaction to last year’s xenophobic riots in some South African cities. One small newspaper that has done a lot in the wake of those riots to bring more attention to the issue of immigrants and the hardship they face in many communities is the Daily Dispatch from East London. International readers may recognize the name as the former home of journalist Donald Woods who wrote a memoir about his relationship with Steve Biko. The paper is doing some of the most relevant work today on immigration, and its latest in-depth feature on the relationship between locals and new migrants from Somalia in nearby New Brighton township is definitely worth a read.