"God Only Loves Mugabe"
Elles van Gelder
JOHANNESBURG and PLUMTREE, South-Western Zimbabwe, Jan 7 (IPS) - Sikhumbuzo* was only 18 when he left Zimbabwe for South Africa. He managed to find a job, and sends home close on 150 dollars a month in cash and goods -- although he can't say how many people he supports. Sitting in a café in the financial hub of Johannesburg, Sikhumbuzo (now 25) tells of a mother and sister in Bulawayo, south-western Zimbabwe; aunts, uncles and cousins also get part of what he sends.
Hundreds of thousands of others find themselves in Sikhumbuzo's position, and the influx of Zimbabweans to South Africa shows no signs of diminishing as economic difficulties in their country deepen and the political crisis there continues. Mismanagement of a state that was once a regional breadbasket has brought about hyper-inflation, poverty and widespread unemployment, obliging citizens to make their living across the border -- the principal destination being South Africa. The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that four million Zimbabweans, about a third of the population, are in need of food aid.
Ahead of elections scheduled for March, government has been engaged in talks with the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the target -- along with others -- of extensive human rights abuses over recent years. But even as negotiations are underway, said Amnesty International recently, violations continue.
Just over 40 percent of Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa take care of three to four people, and 30 percent more than five people -- this according to research conducted by the University of South Africa (UNISA) under the auspices of the Zimbabwe Diaspora Forum, based in South Africa; the Mass Public Opinion Institute, a non-profit in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare; and the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.
For the study, a team interviewed 4,654 Zimbabweans in the Johannesburg suburbs of Berea, Hillbrow and Yeoville. UNISA professor Daniel Makina, who headed the team, thinks there are about 800,000 to a million Zimbabweans in South Africa, far less than the more widely-cited estimates of two to three million -- although he acknowledges that these figures need further research.
His findings show that most of the migrants left Zimbabwe after 2001. Their motivation, at first, was related to intimidation and torture by government forces. But for some time now, economic issues have topped the list of reasons for leaving.
Those who manage to enter South Africa find that life in this country can present a new set of difficulties. With unemployment at about 40 percent, there is competition for jobs -- and feelings of anger towards migrants, seen as reducing employment prospects for locals. Work, when it is available, is often badly paid: 60 percent of Zimbabwean migrants earn less than 300 dollars a month, Makina's research shows.
The research also indicates that the vast majority of migrants send home money or goods to an average value of about 40 dollars, monthly. This may not sound like much; but when the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa is considered, a different picture emerges. If there are indeed some 800,000 Zimbabweans in South Africa, of whom just half have work, then they could be sending home upwards of 190 million dollars annually. Added to this is the money sent by Zimbabweans living elsewhere in the region, and further afield, notably Britain.
Florence, 48, is another migrant who is keeping a family afloat -- nine people, to be precise. She arrived in South Africa at a time when it was easy to get a work permit, and has now been in the country for 11 years.
Florence cares for the son of expatriates; none of her family members in Zimbabwe is employed. They do own a piece of land near Plumtree in south-western Zimbabwe where they grow vegetables -- but have struggled with farming in past months because of poor rains.
Every month, Florence sends home money and goods such as maize meal, paraffin, soap, sugar and clothing. She also sends building materials, because she is putting up a house for herself on the family property.
On this land, some 800 kilometres from Johannesburg, goats wander around amid Mopane scrub, the bells around their necks tinkling; granite hills can be seen on the horizon. Florence's son lives in a one-room home, which contains a bed, an old bicycle and some cupboards; he says his mother takes good care of the family.
The relatives had planned to put on the roof of Florence's house last year, but needed additional zinc sheets. Letting her know that two more had to be sent the next month involved walking to a village about 15 kilometres away, to make a call using the phone of a friend.
Makina says his research indicates that two thirds of the Zimbabwean migrants living in South Africa would return home if the political and economical situation north of the border improved. Florence is a case in point. "My mother is old and needs my love. I am only here because I have to (be)."
Sikhumbuzo also wants to go back, but doesn't hold out much hope of being able to do so soon. "I will only return when...President Mugabe is gone," he says, in reference to head of state Robert Mugabe. "For a long time, I prayed every day for change in Zimbabwe. I stopped. I think God only loves Mugabe. For now, I will stay in South Africa."
* Certain names in this article have been changed to ensure the safety of the people concerned. (END/2008)