Five black South African members of a dance and music troupe asked a federal immigration judge here for political asylum Tuesday, saying they would be imprisoned, tortured or killed if forced to return home.
Since they arrived in the United States in 1980, the five have repeatedly denounced the South African government policy of apartheid and called for economic sanctions against Pretoria.
“I’m not a politician; I’m a musician. But I am caught in the politics,” Dingane Lelokoane said. “At this point, I don’t think it is healthy for me to go back to South Africa. I can get killed back there.”
Received Entertainers’ Visas
Lelokoane and the other performers came to the United States as part of a South African government-sponsored tour and had been issued entertainers’ visas. They have remained here since and now perform as members of groups called Zulu Spears and Zulu Warriors. Previously they were members of a group called the Uzulu Dance Theatre.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service opened deportation proceedings against the five entertainers last July, prompting Tuesday’s plea for asylum before U.S. Immigration Judge Bernard J. Hornbach.
He gave the performers four months to prepare material to support their application and set a hearing for June 5, 1987. No earlier date was available because of the backlog of immigration cases.
The State Department could recommend asylum, a recommendation that might prompt INS to abandon the deportation proceedings. If the State Department opposes asylum, then William May, attorney for the five South Africans, may press his case before an immigration judge, who is empowered to grant asylum.
Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Sechaba Mokena likened living in this country to “heaven.” He said his first taste of freedom came seven years ago when he performed in London and saw “blacks and whites eating at the same restaurants together.”
After returning to South Africa, he said, a white woman from London whom he had met on the tour greeted him with a hug. After the two parted company, he said, security police took him to a nearby building and beat him.
“I decided the next time I got out I would never come back,” Mokena said.
Other members told similar stories of run-ins with police and forced moves from the countryside to Johannesburg, where they met. Others in the group include Matome Somo, Mubi Mathunjwa and Barbara Ndumo.
A sixth member of the dance troupe, Tom Sanqa, married an American and has won residency. A seventh member is now a Canadian citizen. The entertainers live in Oakland and have been performing at night clubs and colleges in California and elsewhere.
Chris Liebenberg, spokesman for the South African Consulate in Beverly Hills, said he was surprised by the asylum pleas Tuesday, adding that the entertainers have no reason to fear South African authorities.
Liebenberg charged that while their “art is very good,” they are having “money trouble.” He maintained that the plea for asylum is an effort to “focus media attention, so maybe they will get not only support but money as well.”
But May, a San Francisco attorney, said his clients’ fear is well-founded.
‘Would Have Problems’
“It is clear that they would have problems--probably grave problems--and the problems could include imprisonment, internal exile and perhaps death,” May said.
INS figures show that as of this time last year, immigration officials had granted asylum to only five South Africans.
“There aren’t too many of these cases because not too many South Africans find their way to the United States, especially black South Africans,” said Miriam Hayward, an immigration lawyer for the International Institute of the East Bay in Oakland and who has handled five cases involving South Africans.