Zimbabwe’s Refugees: Whither to return?

By Tenford Chitanana (This article was originally intended for a different publication

The future of Zimbabweans  in South Africa hangs in limbo following last year’s amendment of the South African  Immigration Act of 2002 and the growing incidents of violence against  immigrants.(I had hoped that this would be on top of the agenda during President Mugabe's state visit to South Africa).    Even though the situation in Zimbabwe is not as desperate as it was in 2008, it is neither as rosy as life was in the early 90s. The looming prospects of having to go back to a slowly crumbling political economy is invoking memories of the horrid journeys many Zimbabweans took over the past 15 years. 

Downtown Capetown

Downtown Capetown

At the peak of Zimbabwe’s economic and political woes from 2005 to 2009,  Zimbabweans fleeing economic melt down, political persecution and a collapsing public system poured into the neighboring country’s borders in their millions. Zivanai Mungwiniri and Welcome Shaba are just two of nearly two million Zimbabweans in South Africa, a conservative estimate made in 2008 by Southern African Migration Project  (SAMP)

Their separate journeys into SouthAfrica were tough but necessary sacrifices, microcosmic of what many people went through.  Welcome was studying Agronomy at a university in Zimbabwe. The collapse of the government stipend for students and the ailing economy made it impossible for him to  sustain himself while continuing his studies. Zivanai had been teaching Mathematics at a then recently set up school, catering for the kids of thousands of reeled peasant farmers. Many of his students would drop out of school on daily basis and cross over to South Africa.

Within a few months the dropouts would come back with money and food for their parents. I had nothing at the time. My monthly salary was less than a dollar.  I couldn't even afford to go home for the August holidays in 2008”, Zivanai recounts.  Shortly after these experiences, he teamed up with a friend to begin a 700km journey to Pretoria, SouthAfrica. He hoped to get a dignified reward for his expertise as a high school math and science teacher.

Listening to Zivanai relate his ordeal sounds like a page plucked out of fictional script. Like many Zimbabweans at the time, he did not have a passport. His only way into South Africa was to cross the border illegally, a daunting and risky task. There were cases of ruthless  border patrol officers setting dogs on helpless immigrants as well as bandits mugging immigrants of their valued possessions. The fear of crocodiles in the Limpopo river could not deter them from the pursuit of better lives. This was just the beginning of a 100km walking journey.  

 There were dangerous gangs and thugs along the way. They would wait on vulnerable Zimbabweans and strip them of their valuable possessions. In some instances they would rape and kill people.

As luck would have it Zivanai joined a group of 140 other migrants.  They resisted several attempted muggings by the bandits. At one instance one of the thugs was attacked and killed. I cant forget that experienceZivanai recounts. Eventually they made it into Louis Trichardt a town where they got assistance from the Jersuit Refugee Service and  asylum seekers' permits.

Getting a job was not as easy as he had hoped.

I spent one year doing all sorts of odd jobs. I would wash cars and dig latrine pits. This frustrated me a lot because I knew I was a qualified math teacher.

After a year of doing subsistence work and regretting leaving his dignifiedwork in Zimbabwe,  Zivanai got a teaching job at a private school near Pretoria. 

The dawning reality of the possibility to go back to Zimbabwe sooner than hoped has left many unease. Zivanai  I don't know how they (South  African government) are going to deal with the situation.Wonders Zivanai,  there are many of us working productively in South Africa.


Whither to return? 

A man holding a Zimbabwean dollar 'mosaic' reminiscent of the pre2009 hyper inflation.

A man holding a Zimbabwean dollar 'mosaic' reminiscent of the pre2009 hyper inflation.

Dr. Aurelia Segatti, an immigration expert at the African Centre for Migration & Society at University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, observed that, while the new regulation affects all immigrants regardless of their nationality, it will have more impact on Zimbabweans, because they were quite vulnerable before and its likely to increase.  Commenting on the vulnerabilities, Advocate  Shumba, a Zimbabwean lawyer and Civic society leader based in Johannesburg,  said the new regulations permit the determination of asylum transit visas at the borders [which] is highly risky and dangerous for those fleeing political persecution. These regulations will see many of our people declared "undesirables", as we have witnessed in recent weeks, thus forcing many underground and threatening SouthAfricas security” 

The likelihood of Zimbabweans willingly returning home is unclear, sparking fears of forced deportations, and general prejudice.

I dont really see many Zimbabweans going back, some have been here for over 10 years. They have settled with families here. Its going to be a cat-and-mouse scenario once again. Said Fred Matcheza, a law graduate who has been in South Africa for the past five years. Resettling back in Zimbabwe would be a tough call for many immigrants considering the current state of economy and unemployment levels with estimates running as high as 90%. I cannot go back home to be a teacher. If you look at the economy, politics, and start comparing, my salary here is far much better than what i would earn at home., declared Zivanai.

There has been a proliferation of counterfeit work permits selling for R500.00 (roughly $50) . To an ordinary observer they look like originals  and they can fool even a trained immigration official without a scanner. Desperate migrants who might not have a chance at the official work permit are opting for this option. For people with professional skills it is a different story. Most Zimbabweans would rather stay here illegally rather than going home. Coming back home is a gamble but my profession requires integrity, Matsheza added.

Fears of Xenophobia

Messina Border post, SouthAfrica

Messina Border post, SouthAfrica

From early last year to recent months, SouthAfrica has experienced a surge in cases of attacks on foreign nationals.This has heightened concerns that last year’s amendment to the Immigration Act might  incite more attacks. Commenting on the xenophobia concerns Dr Aurelia  said,  I do not want necessarily establish an automatic or mechanical relationship between the regulation and xenophobia. With the governments systematic restriction, it is sending a message that immigration is not a positive thing for the country. At least in terms of how the government communicate with the people it is reinforcing other peoples prejudice and negative sentiment toward immigrants.”  She added that

Xenophobia has been quite high in South Africa. It has remained high and it has not been systematically denounced by the government.  The attacks have been taking place on a regular basis and unfortunately it is something that is likely to continue.” 

As the chances of the Zimbabwe's economic recovery thin away, the political uncertainty builds up, and the attacks on foreign nationals build up, the possibility of being forced to return home grows. They (Zimbabweans in SouthAfrica) might have to brave the threats of expulsion and xenophobic attacks with the hope that 2018 elections bring something better.