Despite the resurfacing Xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Zimbabwean migrants continue to flock to the neighbouring country in their thousands, in search of a better life.
Some Zimbabweans, out of desperation, prefer to swim across the crocodile-infested Limpopo river, while others bribe the army, police and immigration officials to cross into South Africa.
Once in South Africa, the migrants are welcomed by tight immigration laws and are deported back home in droves but that does not deter some who are quick to return despite the growing anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping across the neighbouring country.
“Local South Africans are failing to get jobs, right-wing groups are also putting pressure on the government to review its policy on migrants, citing quite a number of issues such as crime and drug dealing,” said ZAPU Treasurer General, Future Msebele.
Msebele said to reverse this migration trend, Zimbabwe’s economy has to work for Zimbabweans otherwise they would continue the great trek to South Africa.
“This Zimbabwean crisis cannot be wished away. South Africa and SADC need to admit there is a social, economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government must fully implement devolution, conduct social and political reforms, particularly electorally,” he retorted.
South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, in recent a news report, said migrants flocked to their country due to a “mistaken belief that South Africa was the land of honey and milk.”
“Thousands of Zimbabweans escape the mismanagement of their economy, system of capitalism, which worsened the crisis of unemployment and landlessness. Little do they know that when they come here, 12.5 million South Africans are unemployed. Little do they know that levels of poverty and inequality in our society are actually rated above their own countries so what follows is an intense battle for scarce resources, a competition of resources that are just not there then tensions arise,” he said.
A veteran of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle and Zanu PF politburo member, Retired Colonel Tshinga Dube, hinted that to facilitate documentation for Zimbabweans in South Africa, the Zimbabwean government should have kept to the formula of deploying former ZPRA cadres as ambassadors, taking advantage of the historical ties between ZPRA and Umkhonto weSizwe (MK).
“ANC and ZAPU were almost one. We worked together for many years. ZPRA and Umkhonto WeSizwe fought together in the trenches so it was much easier to get someone who had that background,” he said.
Rtd. Col. Dube highlighted South Africa was a really important neighbour to Zimbabwe but that country was now under “a lot of pressure” to reduce Zimbabweans.
“South Africans are crying foul that most of their jobs are taken by Zimbabweans. Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Malawi are (our neighbours too) but South Africa is the most important of them all because we have more than three million Zimbabweans in South Africa, who went there to look for greener pastures. They have stayed there and are still staying there,” he told journalists in Bulawayo.
Rtd. Col. Dube acknowledged “these days, things are becoming very hot for our people in South Africa,” but stated Zimbabwe would “also suffer a great deal if all those people came back.”
He also noted the late president, Robert Mugabe posted the late, Simon Khaya Moyo, as ambassador in South Africa because of the history between ZAPU and the ruling ANC.
“SK was sent there realising the problems that we usually get in South Africa. He did a marvelous job because he was a good friend of (former South African President) Thabo Mbeki and it was easy to deal with South Africans because in Zambia we were together like a family,” he said.
“SK did a marvelous job. I think that’s why the South Africans pretended they were not seeing what was happening. They opened one eye and closed the other. Now I think it has come to a time that they are beginning to worry about our presence there. I’m saying SK’s presence in South Africa did a lot of good for us.”
The former army chief said now President Emmerson Mnangagwa had cut those ties by sending an ambassador not known by South Africa unlike ZAPU cadres.
David Hamadziripi is the current Zimbabwean representative in South Africa.
“The person deployed there now, they don’t know him so it’s very difficult to just knock. As for us when we arrive in South Africa, we can go to (former South African President Jacob) Zuma, knock and say, ‘I’m here to see you, then say what I want but the new ambassador doesn’t know,” Rtd. Col Dube said.
“He must write a letter to foreign affairs who will respond after three months to say, ‘yes you can come. But what is that? It’s failing because we should have taken advantage of the history between ZAPU and ANC to do much better. Mugabe did like that. He took SK’s brother first then took SK later.”
Rtd. Col noted this was not a rule but a tactic to have easy audience:
“You send somebody that knows the fellow very well otherwise you will never get anything.”
Msebele agreed with Rtd. Col. Dube’s sentiment.
“Zimbabwe has to look at the ambassador posted in South Africa. Does he have the capacity to engage with the MK cadres? I believe MK cadres who happen to be in government would need someone they shared trenches with, which is former ZPRA,” Msebele said.
“If Zanu doesn’t have a former ZPRA cadre in its circles, they must look outside the party because this is a state matter not a party issue. There are a lot of capable cadres who can negotiate for Zimbabweans in South Africa but I believe they are not in Zanu PF but found in ZAPU.”
Msebele noted ZAPU’s relationship with the ANC was a lifelong one.
“As ZAPU we continue to engage the ANC on many issues including regional. It’s unfortunate there are some revisionists who are trying to rewrite history and talk of Zanu being a sister organisation to ANC,” he lamented.
“We all know the fact how Zanu treated MK comrades who were in Zimbabwe during the early 1980s. They were kicked out. Surely that’s not a sister organisation but a hostile relationship between Zanu and ANC, which has cost us quite a lot. We believe we would be in a better state if ZAPU was in power and the ANC in power.”
One former ZPRA fighter, Cetshwayo Sithole, disclosed that during ZAPU’s congress held at Bulawayo’s trade fair grounds in 2010, former president of Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association, the late, Kebby Maphatsoe, who was guest of honour at the occasion, was tasked to request the ANC government to provide permits for Zimbabweans in South Africa.
“It was during our evening discussion with Maphatsoe where we raised a very difficult issue that has befallen Zimbabweans,” he said.
“Firstly we discussed the genocide perpetrated by the government right after independence, which displaced quite a lot of people who spread to other nearby countries such as Botswana and South Africa.”
These displaced Zimbabweans, Sithole said, had no documentation and were struggling to access certain services in South Africa.
“As ZPRA and ZAPU, we asked the South African government for permits to be given to people displaced by the genocide,” he said.
After their meeting, Maphatsoe reported back to the South African government where the ANC took action and provided work permits for some Zimbabweans, stated Sithole.
However, Sithole believes more Zimbabweans would be displaced further, as the South African government announced last year it would not extend the Zimbabwean Exemption Permits (ZEPs) to holders.
South Africa gave these holders a year to apply for other permits or leave the country by the end of 2022.
“South Africa has displaced people who deserve to be there. The South African government knows fully well there was a genocide here but have not spoken not a single day even to the African Union that ‘we have displaced people’,” Sithole said.
The ex-ZPRA cadre stated it was surprising how South Africans, who were Zimbabweans’ ‘actual relatives’ would neglect them now.
“It is a shame,” he said.
Sithole narrated that during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, the Zanu government ‘totally’ refused to host MK while ZAPU assisted them.
“Mbeki was arrested in Zimbabwe and the late Joe Modise (MK’s longest serving Commander in Chief) was part and parcel of the ZPRA contingent who were sending weapons to liberate South Africa,” he said.
“This emanated from an agreement between the ANC and ZAPU right back in 1967 wherein it culminated that MK could fight all the way from Zambezi to the Limpopo. Before, it had been a very difficult situation for MK because they had to fight the Rhodesian army. As such ZAPU decided to combine forces so that its Department of Special Affairs could be helpful to MK, as it knew the terrain and could maneuver within provinces.”
The ex-ZPRA cadre revealed that during the Rhodesian war, MK kept their weapons cache here in Zimbabwe, which they would send to South Africa.
“Apart from that, ZPRA had an obligation to send those weapons during independence and could not abandon MK. This is the reason why Modise and Ackim Ndlovu were responsible for taking those weapons into South Africa,” Sithole disclosed, adding it was for this assistance that their own ZPRA commanders were arrested by the Zanu government.
“When we bought our properties, MK bought the black cat transport as the Boers in Rhodesia were moving into South Africa. MK would transport all the Boer’s goods using the black cats but underneath the base of the trucks, put some shells and weapons. When the Zimbabwean government discovered that, Modise was a wanted man and ran away with Ndlovu.
“Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku were wanted men and this is the reason why Masuku died in prison, killed by the Zimbabwean government. This is the reason why Dabengwa was incarcerated even after they were cleared by the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe.”
The ZPRA freedom fighter said their plea to the South African government now was for them to ‘force’ the Zimbabwean government to allow Zimbabweans to vote while in South Africa.
“They should register them and let them vote because it would be very difficult, expensive and unmanageable for them to cross the border to vote in Zimbabwe,” he said.
Mthwakazi Republic Party (MRP) leader Mqondisi Moyo weighed in that Zimbabweans opted to live in South Africa, as its culture was similar to “ours” in quite many respects.
“There are strong cultural ties between South Africa and Mthwakazi. In addition to ideology, there were cultural similarities that enabled working relations between ANC/MK and ZAPU/ZPRA. Language facilitated the accommodation of MK freedom fighters in Matabeleland, though some were later killed by the Zanu government,” he said, emphasising that Zimbabweans in South Africa needed assistance
Moyo underlined three phases that caused Zimbabweans to migrate to South Africa.
“First, our people emigrated into South Africa about a 100 years ago in response to labour demands and worked in mines for Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, popularly known as WENELA. A few worked in the farms. Some returned home at old age, others died in the mines and others became permanent South African residents,” he said.
“Second, over two million of our people fled Matabeleland and Midlands in the early 1980s and settled in South Africa. They did not leave the country in peace but were fleeing a genocide, executed by the Zimbabwean government against Ndebele speaking people in Zimbabwe. Those who escaped to South Africa have remained there to this day.
“Third, thousands more of Zimbabweans fled due to harsh economic conditions prevailing in Zimbabwe. In addition to the general economic instability, Mthwakazi people are subjected to manipulated economic hardships, which have rendered living in Zimbabwe impossible.”
Moyo said consequently, Zimbabweans were left with no choice but to flee Zimbabwe for survival, hence flooding South Africa.
The issue of Zimbabweans in South Africa is clouded by a number of issues, said Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda, leader of the African Diaspora Global Network, who remarked that one of the most outstanding factors why Zimbabweans were not “obviously liked” in South Africa is their large numbers.
“You find them in every corner. If you get into government offices or anywhere else, look at numbers of those who have naturalised, possess South African documents and work in these places. If you go into low income earning, menial jobs you also find a lot of Zimbabweans,” he said.
Dr Sibanda also noted in some circles, Zimbabweans had been praised as hardworking as they have a tendency of working hard.
“Quite a few in South Africa have received medals and recognition, while a good number of Zimbabweans excel in academia, workplace, entrepreneurship or wherever and can’t afford not to be unrecognised at the expense of their hosts. Because of the numbers, we also tend to have outstanding crimes that are performed by Zimbabweans – murders and cash heists. People speak about those things and levels of resentment increase,” he said.
The migrant rights activist said since there was polarisation in South Africa, there were groups that had strong feelings against the increase in documented Zimbabwean migrants.
“Zimbabweans become an easy target because of the fact they are neighbours and that Zimbabwean issues are on their eyes every day. Some South Africans were unhappy when the government issued ZEPs, noting it gave Zimbabweans an advantage to work and it became a thorny issue because they felt it shouldn’t have been done in the first place,” Dr Sibanda summed.
Vavi said the solution for xenophobia and migration was for South African political leaders to address the source of the capitalist system including mismanagement of economies by former liberation movements.
“Don’t play out short term xenophobic games or populism on a very sensitive desperate situation facing the poor Africans failed by the political systems that you belong to,” Vavi urged.
“That’s why we are raising alarm bells to political leaders. Confront the crisis people are facing. Don’t divert attention to the vulnerable and African masses. Do what you were elected to do.”
Since South Africa is grappling with its ‘record’ high unemployment, the trade unionist also urged the government to legislate employment quotas for foreign nationals.
“Quotas are a reality everywhere in the world,” Vavi said.
“But we want to warn against the approach adopted by political parties in South Africa to stop all migration of workers from one country to the other. This is an impossible proposition from where we are coming from. We want to condemn altogether any feeling of xenophobia targeting African workers but we want them to accept that South Africa has laws, regulations and must have quotas to protect workers.”