Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

POPULATION: Mixed Blessings for Zimbabweans Who Brave South Africa

Stanley Karombo

JOHANNESBURG, Nov 23 2005 (IPS) - In the dingy halls of the hotel, one of the staff is talking on the phone. “Tau has been killed,” he says. “I cannot tell you who did it, but Memo discovered the corpse.”

The deceased woman was a prostitute who can be spotted in the room she used, barely covered by a quilt, a telephone cord wound around her neck. She appears to have been stabbed several times, as fresh blood is staining her blouse. From what your correspondent can tell, there are signs of a struggle.

Soon five women dressed in tight, faded jeans saunter into the hotel and ask what has happened. “Who has killed her?” enquires one, matter-of-factly. “We want to know whether she is a member of our group or not.”

When it emerges that this is not the case, the women seem relieved and speak in Ndebele, one of the languages used in Zimbabwe: “Girls, she is not one of us. She is not from Bulawayo.” Bulawayo is Zimbabwe’s second-largest city.

The episode is a reminder not only of the dangers which lurk in this area of Johannesburg – the high-density, somewhat infamous suburb of Hillbrow – but also of the extent to which Zimbabweans have made neighbouring South Africa their home, for the most part illegally.

An estimated 2.5 million have crossed the border, sometimes bringing ethnic tensions along with their luggage.

A Zimbabwean prostitute interviewed by IPS said certain Ndebele migrants accused their Shona counterparts of ruining Zimbabwe by perpetually voting for President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.

A Ndebele man who lives in Hillbrow had similar observations: “I hate Shonas. We cannot work together…Not at all!” he exclaimed.

Certain Ndebele remember all too well the “Gukurahundi”. This Shona term means “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”; but it is also a euphemism for the actions of the president’s fifth brigade and other forces in the Ndebele provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s. During this period, the brigade engaged in the indiscriminate killing of thousands.

The massacres caused some to leave Zimbabwe for South Africa. Since then, many more have followed – prompted by political persecution and economic decline.

However, just 8,000 applications for political asylum have been filed by Zimbabweans to date, according to the Department of Home Affairs – while only about 90 people have actually received political asylum in South Africa.

Home Affairs official Richard Sikakane told IPS that the application process had been slowed by a 130,000-strong backlog of cases. An amendment to the Refugees Act is said to be in the pipeline to speed up asylum applications.

Often, Zimbabweans have found their new home scarcely more hospitable than the old. Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula admits that refugees and asylum seekers are frequently mistreated by the police. In the country as a whole, high levels of unemployment have also led to increasing xenophobia.

Some migrants claim they are paying bribes to officers to avoid being taken to the Lindela Repatriation Centre. According to immigration official Mantshele Tau, about 300,000 Zimbabweans have been deported in recent years.

And so, says Julie Ncube* as she sits cross-legged, lighting a cigarette – one of many: “We’re on the horns of a dilemma – to go and face starvation in Zimbabwe or face abuse by the police.”

She told IPS that many of her friends staying in Johannesburg had become “unofficial wives” for policemen here (police spokesperson Ronnie Naidoo could not confirm the allegation).

“In the end, it’s either you pay them or submit to sex or both. Life in Jozi (a nickname for Johannesburg) is hell on earth; it is not that rosy as we were meant to believe.”

Nonetheless, says Ncube, people who remain in Zimbabwe have high expectations of those who leave, many to support their families.

“It would help if my fellow countrymen, if people back home, appreciated the difficulties we have to endure here,” she adds. “For anyone to send home 500 rand a month, for instance, is a very big achievement.”

In other instances, the South African experience has been more positive.

Jeremiah Gwaze is better off than many of his peers. Unlike those who continue to battle for existence on the streets of Jozi, Gwaze – a graduate of Harare Polytechnic in Zimbabwe – works for an electrical company in the northern Gauteng province.

The tall, vivacious man sits in the well-decorated living room of his Yeoville apartment, smiling has he recalls the harrowing years of starting a new life in Johannesburg.

“I had no money when arrived here. I used to sleep on the streets and most of the Sundays I sat outsides churches begging,” he told IPS.

Zimbabwe is currently in its sixth year of a bitter economic recession that has seen fuel, food, electricity, essential medicines and other basic commodities become in short supply because there is little foreign currency to pay suppliers from abroad.

Critics blame the economic meltdown on mismanagement and repressive rule by veteran President Robert Mugabe.

However, the aging head of state ascribes Zimbabwe’s woes to sabotage by Britain and its Western allies; this, he says, was in return for his campaign started in 2000 to seize land from whites – allegedly for distribution to black Zimbabweans who were deprived of land during colonialism and its aftermath.

* Certain names have been changed to protect the privacy of those concerned.

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