Survival tactics in South Africa

The year is 2008 and Chengeto finds herself in South Africa having fled violence and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe. She has no job - only a friend’s promise to give her shelter as she looks for employment. This is her first time down South and the culture shock hits her hard.

As she travels by public transport from Johannesburg central to the suburb where her friend lives, she can’t help but notice how similar and yet so different the two countries are. Chengeto constantly wants to make conversation with her friend on this taxi journey but her friend is not interested, replying in a very low voice, using one-syllable answers and preferring to use English. Just as they are about to reach their destination, Chengeto is startled when her friend suddenly shouts to the taxi driver, “After rovoti” for “After the robots”, in one of the strangest tones that she had ever heard.

Again she is amazed at how in just a few months, her friend could not pronounce the word ‘robot’. But as Chengeto would learn in the ensuing months, social assimilation plays an important role in how Zimbabweans survive in South Africa. She learnt that to live in South Africa with less hassles, she would have to blend in and strive to be as inconspicuous as possible. That, she realised, included deliberately mispronouncing words such as ‘robot’ so that she would not be single out as a foreigner. It would extend to the way she dressed, did her hair and even her language of communication in public spaces.

There are many varied groups of Zimbabweans living in the neighbouring country. Some have their legal documents in order, live in suburbs where one could live for years without knowing his/her neighbour’s name. Others have no legal documents and constantly fight running battles with the police officers. To dodge easy identification by the police, one has to pretend to be indigenous, imitating the locals in every way possible.

Tina, a Zimbabwean who lives in a location called Sebokeng, says the main issue is that of legal documents which forces Zimbabweans to keep a very low profile. “If you have no legal documents, the next best thing is to try to act like a South African. The key problem though is that of language; because many Shona people can’t speak Ndebele let alone Zulu. However, Ndebeles have been able to learn the skill of adaptation quite easily because they have the advantage if speaking a language which is quite similar to Zulu,” she said.

What has made social assimilation even more vital, particularly for those living in the high density suburbs and informal settlements of the major cities, is the ever-present threat of xenophobic attacks. These lurk constantly just underneath the glossy surface.

However, in spite of all this, the exiles have found different ways of asserting themselves and finding avenues to claim identity.

“I have joined a Zimbabwean church group here because I need to feel at home, expressing myself with those with whom I share a common culture, background and language. The group gives me a sense of belonging,” said a lady who wished to remain anonymous.

Not all exiles want to blend in. Some have found that identifying themselves openly is an advantage. For example, many employers perceive Zimbabweans to be hard working and well educated. In non-threatening environments, most Zimbabweans are only too happy to be identified as such.

Post published in: Analysis
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