Quiet walk home turns into nightmare for Malawians

Asylum-seeker spends six weeks in prison

By Bernard Chiguvare

27 January 2016

Malawian national Patrick Makwinja, arrested while walking in the street with another Malawian in Witsand near Heidelberg in mid-December, spent six weeks in prison before being released on bail on Tuesday. 

Makwinja and his friend Charles Mkwapatira were picked up by police in the street in Witsand on 12 December at about 22h00 and put in police cells in Heidelberg. The two appeared in Heidelberg Magistrate Court on 14 and 15 December; Mkwapatira was released on R1,000 bail on 12 January but Makwinja was detained until a court hearing on Tuesday. He is now out on R2,000 bail.

In a statement made in prison, Mkwapatira told his story.

The two men had been walking in the street when they were stopped by a member of the Witsand Neighbourhood Watch, he said.

“He was driving from the direction we were walking to… He asked where we were coming from and where we were going.”

Makwinja had explained where he lived but within “three to four minutes” a police vehicle had arrived on the scene. Two officers had asked the two men to “prove” that they were living in Witsand.

The Malawians had got into the police car and directed the driver to the house where Makwinja lived.

“Patrick pressed the key code and opened the gate. We thought that was enough proof to them that he really stays there but the police officer insisted that we should go inside.” Followed by the Neighbourhood Watch member, Mkwapatira said, the two men and the police officers had entered the room. “After the lights were on they looked at each other and seemed to be satisfied.”

The police had then asked for Makwinja’s asylum papers and declared them to be “fake”.

The two men had been handcuffed together and told to sit on the back seat of the car and direct the driver to Mkwapatira’s residence. “I opened the gate and we all entered.”

The police officer had asked for his papers and he had handed over documents supplied by PASSOP (People against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty).

“He said they don’t allow those papers either. He handcuffed us again and said we must go with him to the police station.”

Mkwapatira said he had asked to be allowed to contact his employer but this was refused.

They had arrived at Heidelberg police station at about 23h30 and been placed in a cell with five other suspects. A police officer had taken their statements the next morning and told their employers had come earlier but had not been allowed to see them.

After Joanne Attenborough, Mkwapatira’s employer, had called the police, the two men were placed in a separate cell, with no other detainees. But they were only allowed to make one telephone call.

In court the following Tuesday they were denied bail and remanded in custory until 11 January 2016.

Attenborough said the arrest and detention of the two men “was and is a complete violation of their human rights”.

“I would like to see justice done,” she said.

Makwinja's employer, who preferred to remain anonymous said: I think justice should be done immediately. Why should it take such a long time for police and the justice department to bring justice to such cases?”

She said she would assist him “in any way possible”.

Makwinja will be back in court on 18 March and Mkwapatira on 9 February 2016.