In the early hours of Jan. 11, Zimbabwean schoolteacher Sifanekiso Magwegwe reached the Limpopo River, which forms part of the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Behind her was a country whose security forces had already broken into her home and beaten her up because of her family's politics. Ahead of her was a country (South Africa) that didn't want another refugee. In the river itself were crocodiles.
But like dozens of other illegal refugees on that day and hundreds of thousands of other Zimbabweans, Magwegwe plunged into the river.
"There were hundreds of people doing it," she recalls, sitting in the office of an relief agency that helps Zimbabwean political victims. "I just told myself, what will happen will happen. I put myself in God's hands and swam."
The growing tide of refugees – and particularly torture victims like Ms. Magwegwe – raises uncomfortable questions for a South African government that came to power in the name of human rights but that has refused to criticize its hard-line neighbor, led by President Robert Mugabe. But as South African President Thabo Mbeki takes criticism for his "quiet diplomacy," hopes are being raised that Zimbabwe's government may finally be ready to talk with the opposition and that Mr. Mbeki's bid to mediate a political solution between Mr. Mugabe and the opposition will bear fruit.
"The South African government recognizes that the flood of refugees along their quite open border will occur, unless there is a political solution inside Zimbabwe," says Chris Maroleng, an expert on Zimbabwe for the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria (now known as Tshwane.) "But the problem for South Africa is that if they make provisions to allow Zimbabwe refugees in, they have to make a statement of why they are doing that, to criticize the Mugabe regime." That, he says, would scuttle Mbeki's chances of negotiating a settlement between the government and the opposition.
"The problem with the South African government is that it cannot effectively communicate their policy," says Mr. Maroleng. "It always ends up looking like the ... government supports Mugabe."
Zimbabwe is marking 27 years of independence from Britain this week – all under Mugabe's rule – but the celebration has been marred by the country's devastated economy and a political crisis sparked by Mugabe's plan to seek another five-year term in 2008. Zimbabwe's main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, said last week that he would talk with Mugabe's party to try to end the crisis, which he says has resulted in the abduction and torture of 600 political activists this year.
Western input hurts
Sikhumbuzo Ndiweni, a retired Zimbabwe Defense forces lieutenant colonel and political analyst, says that the Western countries have unintentionally made the human rights situation worse in Zimbabwe by harping on the need for Mugabe to step aside.
"There's no road map," he complains. "You expect Mbeki to say, 'I support you,' but they have no idea how to achieve the new dispensation. If you don't have a road map, and if you haven't helped the opposition come up with a strategy over the long term, then five weeks later, there will be a coup, and the ruling party will all come back again."
Yet rights activists inside Zimbabwe and outside have kept up the drumbeat, calling on the world to keep up pressure on the Mugabe regime to step aside.
In their Easter joint statement, the Roman Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe wrote, "Many people in Zimbabwe are angry, and their anger is now erupting into open revolt in one township after another.... In order to avoid further bloodshed and avert a mass uprising, the nation needs a new people-driven constitution that will guide a democratic leadership chosen in free and fair elections."
But for many Zimbabwean political activists, the only solution has been to flee.
James Lunga, newly arrived in South Africa, has spent the past four years as a refugee in Botswana – part of that in prison for crossing the border illegally. He says he fled Zimbabwe after being arrested and tortured for his activities as a leader in the youth wing of Mr. Tsvangirai's opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.
Today he lives in a friend's apartment with nine other refugees. "We sleep like people in prison, you don't turn or roll over," he says. "We haven't got papers, so I'm afraid of getting arrested and deported to Botswana or to Zimbabwe," where he would be imprisoned once more.
Hard to live in South Africa
Ephraim Mugande, a teacher from the Matabeleland region of Zimbabwe, fled after he and his wife were beaten and raped for their involvement in the MDC.
"My wife was raped in front of me, and I was also raped at the same time," says Mr. Mugande. Mugande took his wife to his in-laws' and fled to Botswana, where he was jailed for 18 months. His wife, who was raped three more times by policemen, also fled to Botswana, and was jailed for a year before being granted refugee status. In March, Mugande fled Botswana, after facing arrest there for organizing a peaceful protest in sympathy for Zimbabwe.
"I don't regret involving myself with the MDC," Mugande says, but says that his move to South Africa is "a disaster." "I don't have proper accommodation, no meals, I don't have a jacket and the weather is chilly. And again, I'm separated from my wife. It's really paining now."
Richard Nyasvimbo left his hometown of Manyika after being beaten by ZANU-PF activists and threatened with death unless he stopped his support for the MDC. But now in South Africa, with no papers and no legal way of obtaining work, he's wondering if he's really better off.
"If I stay in South Africa and not work, and fail to pay my rent here, it's a problem," he says, shaking his head. "Right now, I don't have a future."