JOHANNESBURG // Every night the rooms, corridors and stairs of the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg are packed from wall to wall with Zimbabweans who have fled their country. The building, a concrete rabbit warren-like structure in the centre of the city, has become an unofficial reception centre for victims of Robert Mugabe's repression and economic misrule. Driven out by hunger and poverty, they risk robbery, rape or worse to cross the border in search of safety and a better life.
Almost 2,000 people are estimated to bed down there each evening, and it is a focus for the Zimbabwean community in South Africa. But exile is not necessarily a route to riches, or even security. Last year, Africans were targeted in xenophobic riots across the country and asylum seekers tell of constant harassment from the authorities. Nonetheless the Zimbabweans at the church say they are in no hurry to return north, despite the swearing-in of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, as prime minister last week and the formation of a unity government.
Instead, with Mr Mugabe, who turns 85 on Saturday and has led the country since independence in 1980, remaining as president they echo the concerns of western governments, who want to see the power-sharing work tangibly in practice before unleashing billions of dollars in reconstruction and development aid. "We accept the agreement, we like it, but we don't trust it for now," said Stephen Badze, 25, from Kwekwe.
Isdore Mubaiwa, 30, who has been in South Africa for a month, added: "There are still arrests of people in Zimbabwe. I don't see things working properly. It's impossible, the situation we are facing." For Traner Ruzvidzo, an MDC activist and spokeswoman for female refugees, there are wider concerns. "This joint government is a charade, it's a waste of time," she said. "Zanu-PF is not compromising; they want MDC to act as losers and them as winners."
She had been asked for her identification 12 times in one day, she said, and was worried that South Africa, which mediated the talks that led to the agreement, would use it as a pretext to proclaim the Zimbabwean crisis over and start forcibly repatriating the immigrants. "It's not clear to refugees what this deal means for them," she said. With Zimbabwe in the grip of widespread food shortages - half the population needs direct aid, according to the United Nations - and a cholera epidemic, sending people home would "simply be murder", according to Paul Verryn, the Methodist bishop who runs the church.
He pointed out that there had been an influx of new arrivals since Mr Tsvangirai's installation, amid fears of what would happen next. A prominent former anti-apartheid activist, he accused the South African authorities of being "completely blinkered" to the depth of suffering in its neighbour, and of failing to counter the perception that Zimbabweans were not wanted in the country. Police, he said, "pursue them in exactly the same way they did black people in the 1960s and 1970s".
"I don't think South Africa has worked through its legacy of prejudice. You can't have a history of actually centuries of inbuilt violent prejudice and suddenly, because we have a rainbow nation, it dissipates like the morning mist. "There's constantly a search for a target. There's an unwillingness to accept Zimbabwe is in crisis and it's a refugee-producing country." Even so there has been strong domestic criticism of the African National Congress' policy of "quiet diplomacy" towards Mr Mugabe - which officials say has produced a power-sharing agreement that is the best way of resolving Zimbabwe's deadlock.
The leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) put huge pressure on Mr Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist, to go into the unity government, and his fraternal comrades in the Confederation of South African Trade Unions have accused Kgalema Motlanthe, the South African president, of continuing the discredited approach of Thabo Mbeki, the former president who was the ANC's envoy to Harare in the early 1980s.
Kumi Naidoo, who was a member of the ANC underground before going into exile as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in 1987, has just ended a 21-day hunger strike against both Mr Mugabe's dictatorship and Pretoria's actions. "There's a misguided loyalty here," he said, his gaunt cheeks and skinny frame testament to the 16kg he lost in the process. "Yes we owe a debt to Zimbabwe for the help they gave to our liberation struggle, but it's a debt we don't owe to Robert Mugabe and Zanu alone. It's a debt we owe to the Zimbabwean people as a whole."
SADC's own protocols on human rights, free and fair elections, and good governance, had been "flagrantly violated with impunity" by Mr Mugabe. "People in Zimbabwe ask themselves: why is this government, which stands for democracy and has one of the best constitutions in the world, why will they tolerate this? It's incomprehensible at the end of the day why there was this kind of support. "I don't think the SADC deal is any cause for celebration. It was a bad deal that has protected Mugabe."
At the church, the resulting uncertainty is widespread among the residents. "I don't know what's going to take place over there in Zimbabwe," said Israel Manyangadze, 17, who fled only three weeks ago. "Maybe they are going to agree with each other, maybe they are going to make some conflicts. I don't think I will go back to Zimbabwe." email@example.com