The only way out

I am constantly amazed at the lengths that people will go to when estimating the numbers in different countries. South Africa in particular, consistently understates their estimates of the numbers of Zimbabweans there.

I personally cannot see how it can be less than 4 million. In 2008 alone no less than 1,2 million people crossed into South Africa, fleeing the economic collapse, political violence outbreaks of disease and massive food shortages.

The collateral effects on South Africa are difficult to measure. Some 600 000 have migrated officially and are in SA legally, they comprise an elite comprising professionals, managers and technicians. The rest go into an underworld and are beggars, prostitutes and thieves. They are also waiters and forecourt attendants, domestic workers and farm labourers.

They move into vast areas of slum dwellings, sleeping in small rooms rented from slum landlords. They are exploited by everyone: employers who get an employee who will not complain when abused or underpaid, police who will take a bribe to let you lose when caught in an illegal migrant swoop, criminal elements who draw them into gangs and use them as expendable agents of violence.

$50 a month

Every month these millions of people faithfully send money home by any means that is available – an envelope with a bus driver, an electronic transfer. If they transfer just $50 a month each, they are sending $200 million a month to Zimbabwe – equal to half the State budget and double the income of all urban councils. In fact this is one of our largest inward financial transfers and we could not have survived without these funds.

But it means that one in every five jobs in South Africa is held by a migrant worker from Zimbabwe and all local residents understand this and resent their presence. Xenophobia is totally understandable – it is surprising that it breaks out so infrequently and is so limited in scope.

I have no doubt that all African States that are trying to do better, observing the rule of law and treating investors with respect and discipline, are directly suffering from the impact that a single rogue State like Zimbabwe can have. It’s no wonder and completely understandable when the President of Botswana cannot constrain himself at a SADC summit in Harare and stands up in complete frustration and tells the Chairman that he is the cause of great suffering and lower growth rates in all other countries and then walks out and flies home, still seething.

The reality is that since 1995, the migrant route has offered Zimbabweans the only way to advance themselves or to provide for their families “at home”. To get to their target countries they have subjected themselves to immeasurable hardships and trouble.

Basic needs

Once there they have to learn strange languages, customs and find work and somewhere to live. Millions live lives that mean a daily struggle to survive and provide their basic needs. When they die, it’s usually not a coffin on a plane but a paupers’ funeral in a strange land, far away from home and loved ones.

For us at “home” it means the lifeline of the cash transfer and perhaps an annual visit by a son or a brother with a second hand truck or car loaded to the skies with goods and second hand things that make life in a country where the quality of life has not changed for 45 years and incomes and employment have plummeted since 1997 a little easier. But it also means that the majority of our game changers and innovators, managers and essential professionals are no longer living here and are not available to drive the process of political and economic change.

The truth is we have all become victims of a criminal elite, that has entrenched and enriched itself to the detriment of everyone who lives in this part of Africa. It is past the time when our neighbours should wake up to the reality of the collateral damage being inflicted on their own countries and help us achieve change without recourse to violence.

Post published in: News

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