The Ides of COVID-19

By Khanyile Mlotshwa

Zimbabweans living in South Africa, especially in the Gauteng province, are bracing themselves for an uncertain future lying at the end of the country’s 21 days lockdown that started on Thursday 26 March midnight.

Zimbabwe’s Minister of Health and Child Care, Obadiah Moyo, said over 13 000 of the migrants crossed the border back into their country of birth on the eve of the lockdown.

As South Africa is imposing a strict travel ban, even between its provinces, it is unclear if the migrants will be allowed back into the country after the lockdown likely to be extended.

The lockdown that is initially expected to end on the night of 16 April is meant to control the spread of the Covid-19 that has ravaged Europe and the US.

“A lot of things are going to change for us,” said a Zimbabwean male who works part time in the hospitality industry. It’s just that we all don’t know how our fortunes will be affected. But I can feel it in my bones. Something will happen.”

He was speaking on the eve of the lockdown.

South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, on March 23 announced that Africa’s second biggest economy will be partially shut down for 21 days to minimise contact between people to control the spread of the Covid-19.

This is because the virus that had caught up with South Africa, first dictated in citizens who had travelled to Italy on holiday, was slowly spreading especially in Gauteng, the continent’s premier commercial province.

As South Africa marked the end of the first week of the lockdown, the ministry of health announced that the virus has infected 1 462 people in the country.

According to South African Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, there are five confirmed deaths, and the ministry was working on verifying two possible Covid-19 deaths.

“There is restraint in numbers which we think is due to the lockdown,” he said.

International media reported that the number of coronavirus cases passed the one million mark as they stood at 1 006 200 with 51 650 deaths and 209 000 recoveries.

Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa, Ngqabutho Mabhena, said since most Zimbabwean migrants were employed in the informal economy, the lockdown will adversely affect them.

“As it is, we are already faced with the challenge around a lot of Zimbabweans in the hospitality sector and are not registered,” he said.
“Some bosses are refusing to pay them. This is the immediate challenge we have. They do not have unions and they do not have documents. The bosses are saying since they are not registered with the UIF (Unemployment Insurance Fund), they cannot pay them. We are trying to see how we can assist them.”

In 2019, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated youth unemployment rate in South Africa was at 53.18 percent and over the years the economy has struggled to produce jobs.

A majority of migrants work in precarious jobs in the hospitality industry, in the construction industry, domestic work or are self-employed as hawkers, running hair saloons or spaza shops.

As the lockdown unravels, fear has been expressed about the more than 13 000 who returned to Zimbabwe on the eve of the lockdown.

In a Facebook debate, one Zimbabwean said it was irresponsible of them to rush home from a country with many cases to a country that had only two cases at the time.

However others came to their defense pointing out how it was pointless for most people who live in ‘expensive spaces’ to stick to Johannesburg without any idea of how they will pay rent at the end of April.

“It would look like some people have completely collapsed their lives here in Joburg,” a postgraduate student at a university in Johannesburg said. “They hope to build their lives anew when the virus blows over.”

On the eve of the lockdown, Minister of Small Business Development, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, added to the uncertainty around the future of migrants when she announced that small tuckshops (spaza shops) owned by non-South Africans will close down as part of the lockdown measures.

However small shops owned by South Africans will not close down as the government will support them so that communities have access to food.

Police and soldiers have made sure that spazza shops by foreigners close down.

The directive meant that very few spaza shops remain open in Central Suburbs of Joburg like Hillbrow and Berea.

However, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, on April 2, announced a government back down on the closure of spaza shops and street food vendors.

“They have to receive clearance from local authorities,” she insisted.

It was, however, not clear if that included spaza shops owned by migrants.

“Even if we are to open, even if the police didn’t make sure that we close down,  we will still face the challenge in stocking as there is restriction on movement,” said one spaza operator in Berea.

He said his family is going through a tough time as the spaza is their source of income.

“I had saved some money, that I wanted to use to upscale my business,” the Zimbabwean born spaza owner said. “I am now using the money for food, electricity and basic needs in these painful days. I just hope at the end, I can resume my business.”

On April 1, senior journalist, Ferial Haffagee noted, “South Africa has 67 new mobile testing units, which can produce results in 45 minutes, to boost testing to among highest per capita in world as country enters a new coronavirus phase.”

This was after President Ramaphosa had announced an ambitious door to door testing plan to map the virus and patterns of infection.

Haffagee warned the “lockdown may be longer – depends on viral curve.”

The Zimbabwean migrants who runs a spaza in Berea laughs dryly, “If they extend the lockdown, I will have to find a matshonisa (loan shark) to pick my business up.”

What has made the future of migrants in South Africa more uncertain has been the fortifying of the fence at the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa in Beitbridge spearheaded by the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure.

The minister, Patricia De Lille posted pictures on Twitter to update the nation on progress in Beitbridge “where the contractor is working with eight teams to repair and replace the fence at the border. This is also part of the Department of Public Works response to Covid-19.”

This has been shocking after Minister of Home Affairs, Aaron Motsoaledi, had reiterated and emphasised the Beitbridge border post – the gateway to Africa – would not be closed.

However it has not been unsurprising considering the seemingly lax response to the virus by some African governments.

Zimbabwe government spokesperson, Nick Mangwana responded angrily to a question by South Africa’s top diplomatic journalist, Sophie Mokoena, on how Zimbabwe allowed a private plane carrying an Italian citizen, with a South African passport, to fly from Harare to OR Tambo.

The Italian citizen was forced to fly back to Harare as South Africa refused him entry into the country.

Mabhena said a clearer future of the challenges ahead was slowly emerging as the lockdown unravelled.

“We had said we will glimpse how it will play out starting from Friday (March 27) when omalayitsha are preparing to leave for Zimbabwe at the weekend,” he said.

There was a huge queue at the border at the weekend as both South Africa and Zimbabwean border management authorities started allowing more goods than humans to pass.

“One of my sons and his father arrived this morning,” said one woman in Bulawayo whose three sons carry goods and people between Zimbabwe and South Africa. She was speaking March 27 afternoon.

“The other son is caught up at the border,” she said. “I hear some of the rowdy omalayitsha have been arrested there. I hope he is not part of them.”

For some time on that Friday, it remained unclear what would happen to the people caught up in the over three kilometres queue of cars that wanted to cross to Zimbabwe.

Social media platforms were full of speculation as some people suggested they will spend the 21 days on lockdown in that queue.

“My son managed to cross,” said the woman. “He arrived here later on Friday evening. He said they finally allowed them to go through.”

Mabhena said for the rest of the Zimbabwe community who remained in Johannesburg, it “is a lockdown” no matter how painful.

“For the rest of us, it’s a lockdown, whether for sex workers or other people in other trades,” he said.

Over the years, the lack of jobs in Johannesburg, as a diaspora city for most migrants, has been paralleled by growth in the illicit economy of sex work and criminality such as robberies.

The Zimbabwe Community in South Africa has so far this year organised two meetings to deal with growing issues of crime among Zimbabwean migrants.

Mabhena said their greatest fear was that the effects of the lockdown may be felt after 16 April.

“Since a lot of people are informally employed, they will be without income in those 21 days,” he said. “Of course at the end of March, they managed to pay rentals for April, but the end of April will bring us to a crisis. The hawkers and vendors are already struggling in terms of money for food.

“We are likely to have a crisis going forward after the 21 days, worse we all don’t know what will happen after the 21 days. We are very much concerned.”

However, Mabhena said the ultimate fear is having the virus spread among the migrants.

“We are in Johannesburg, which is now the epicentre of the corona virus and the risk is that we can also get it,” he said. “As it is, we don’t have any breakdown as to the number of Zimbabweans among the over a thousand people infected in South Africa. So we hoping that we survive the virus.”

Most migrants, especially in Johannesburg, live in crowded conditions with some rooms divided by curtains and let out to two or more families.

Even under quarantine conditions the population density in places like Hillbrow still leaves them exposed to possible infection.

One woman who works as a helper in the white suburbs said starting a week before the lockdown, her employers insisted that she be a live in helper.

“I have been commuting between the township and my workplace but my employers have said to minimise chances of catching the virus, I must stay at their home,” she said. “For the duration of the lockdown my son, who is struggling to find a job here, will be alone in our zinc backyard room in the township.”

The stress of unemployment, lack of income and loneliness has increased fears of an upsurge of mental diseases among the migrants.

“Most of us will need counselling at the end of all this,” said a Zimbabwean woman teaching at a private school in central Johannesburg. “Be it by a relative or even a pastor, we will need someone to talk to, to tell us it shall be well.”

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