Life on Joburg’s streets

Anything goes in Hillbrow, a suburb that never sleeps. The sounds of rumba music cut through the air from the south end of Caroline street, a man in his early 40s dances with children to a gospel song bellowing from a generator-powered home theatre.

A Zimbabwean sex worker at a brothel in Hillbrow.
A Zimbabwean sex worker at a brothel in Hillbrow.

In response to a whistle blast, a group of young men grab plastic bags full of pirated discs and scurry for cover. Johannesburg metro police officers drive past with their sirens wailing.

“Namhla kunzima (today it is very tough),” remarks a young man as he makes his way back to his stand, a cardboard box spread out on an empty 20-litre plastic bucket.

Next to him, a cluster of women work as hairdressers and in the background, half-naked women make advances to the men who pass by.

“All these are your countrymen,” says a South African journalist. “You see what they are doing to our country? Instead of fighting Mugabe, they are all coming here to break the law.”

The bigger picture

It is difficult to hear such a statement, but evidence on the street proves him right. Piracy and prostitution are rife in places like Hillbrow, but is that all there is to the ballooning Zimbabwean population in Johannesburg?

“Women indulge in prostitution as a last resort as they try to survive,” said political and social activist, Collen Makumbirofa. “President Robert Mugabe has destroyed the social fabric of Zimbabweans by driving them into exile.”

Economic hardships result in them throwing the need for dignity and self-esteem to the wind. Survival becomes the only goal.

“When the situation was right at home, we did not see this,” he said. Johannesburg-based journalist, Ndumiso Mlilo, believes that accusations against the Zimbabweans are unfair.

“We are a law-abiding people who work for our living. In any society you find good and bad. Painting everyone with the same brush is unfair. Many of us provide employment and deserve praise.”

A spokesperson from New Life Centre which rehabilitates former prostitutes in Berea, also absolves Zimbabweans of the blame. Agreeing that some of the “foot-soldiers” in Hillbrow are Zimbabweans, she said that most of those controlling the sex trade were locals who exploited foreigners.

“Many women are lured to South Africa with promises of work and later turned into sex slaves,” she said. “They come from various African countries. Most struggle to break free because they have been threatened with death.”

What the stats say

Locals and Nigerians have been fingered as the force behind the vice. Police statistics show that Zimbabweans involved in crime do not outnumber South Africans, Nigerians or Mozambicans.

“Most Zimbabweans involved in armed robbery and murder are in partnership with locals,” said Lungelo Dlamini, police spokesman for Johannesburg. “Our statistics do not show certain nationalities as leaders in a certain crime, so we cannot say that Zimbabweans are responsible.”

Some Zimbabweans are flying their country’s flag high in exile.

“Since I came here, I have been involved in empowering stranded migrant women,” says Joice Dube, director at the Southern African Women’s Institute for Migration Affairs, who comes from Gwanda. “Our aim is to make sure that when they finally return home, they do not start from scratch. We teach them self-empowerment skills.”

SAWIMA has also been instrumental in fighting xenophobia, coming up with the annual Ubuntu football tournament that involves Zimbabwean and South African teams. It also spearheads dialogue to bring Africans together.

Even Zimbabwean political parties, especially the two MDCs and Zapu, are involved in crime fighting and community development initiatives here.

“We are out to defeat the notion that Zimbabweans are behind crime in this country because that is not true,” says Zapu spokesman, Busani Bhalagwe. “It is high time that we set the record straight by bringing ourselves closer to locals so that they see for themselves how good we are.”

Great Zimbabweans in Johannesburg include Sifiso Dabengwa, the Chief Executive of cellular service provider MTN, Godfrey Gomwe and July Ndlovu, executive members of mining giant AngloPlatinum, Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, research head at the University of Johannesburg and Professor Tawana Khupe, head of Media studies at Wits University, among many others.

Post published in: Africa News

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