Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – A long, white luxury coach with 48 passengers on board crawls out of its parking depot, destined for Johannesburg, South Africa. The passengers face an overnight journey with lengthy border queues and temperamental immigration officials. Philani Moyo, 25, dreads the wait, but he’s more anxious about something else – his personal safety for the duration of his three-week visit to South Africa.
Moyo is unsure of what to expect following the recent spate of xenophobic attacks in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal that killed at least seven Africans, including a brutally decapitated Zimbabwean woman. He told The Daily Vox that on this visit, he would need to be cautious.
“I wonder what the mood is like now. South Africans usually have a funny attitude towards Zimbabweans, but with all this violence I wonder if it could be worse. I’m lucky I speak Ndebele so I can get away with it, but I won’t just talk to anyone. One has to be careful,” he said.
One of many migrants seeking a better life, Moyo is an unemployed graduate hoping to find job prospects in South Africa. With Zimbabwe’s debt-laden economy predicted to shrink by 4% this year, some Zimbabweans are leaving, while those at home blame President Robert Mugabe’s 35-year regime for the southward exodus.
Closing a regional summit on industrialisation and development, Mugabe, the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), said the rise in migration to South Africa was a question of free will, not political circumstance.
“They are not pushed by government; they go voluntarily. They think South Africa is the heaven, our heaven, in southern Africa,” he said.
In response, Chaiye Matanda, 53, a tobacco subsistence farmer, quipped: “How can South Africa not be heaven, when that is how we survive?”
Thandi Moyo, 33, a sales employee, told The Daily Vox the economy played a major role in migration. “Of course it’s the government’s fault. If things were fine here, there wouldn’t be so many people going to South Africa. There wouldn’t be so many attacks on Zimbabweans if there weren’t so many of us there. As long as the economy is bad, people will go. How long can we live like this?” Moyo asked.
Further challenging Mugabe’s view, McDonald Lewanika, the director of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, an NGO collective formed in 2001 at the height of Zimbabwe’s unrest, told The Daily Vox there were far more complex factors forcing movement.
“It is unfortunate that our president and SADC chair is being intellectually dishonest when it’s clear people in southern Africa migrate for both economic and political reasons, especially in Zimbabwe,” said Lewanika. “People have gone to South Africa because the circumstances in Zimbabwe were untenable.
Fleeing political turmoil and severe economic hardship, more than a million Zimbabweans have migrated to South Africa seeking asylum, employment and education over the years. However, the recent wave of xenophobic attacks has led to 800 migrants in KwaZulu-Natal being repatriated back home by the Zimbabwean state; thousands more left for Malawi and Mozambique.
Urging the government to take responsibility for Zimbabwe’s mass migration and the resulting xenophobic sentiments in South Africa, Lewanika said: “Our leadership must be able to take responsibility for the situations causing migration. In the case of Zimbabwe, there are many testimonies from people who have stayed put in the hope things would change, but the situation is still the same.
“It’s sad for those coming back because it’s like jumping from the frying pan into the fire when they find the political and economic situations they ran away from are still there.”
While the SADC states say they intend to develop co-operation to improve economies and reduce migration, some Zimbabweans are uncertain what relief the government’s recent bilateral engagements could bring.
Sitheni Moyo, 34, a milliner, told The Daily Vox she was hopeful, but she didn’t expect a quick change. “To be honest, I’m not sure that doing all this make a difference for the ordinary person on the street. They are signing deals, but are these deals capable of changing the situation? I think things will get better, but it could take a long time before we see any change,” she said.
Last month, Mugabe attended the Africa-Asia summit in Indonesia, negotiating agreements with China and Indonesia. On his first state visit to South Africa since 1994, Mugabe also signed several bilateral agreements expected to benefit both countries, but given the state of Zimbabwe’s economy, it might take much more than a regional roadmap and a few trade deals to stop the streams of Zimbabweans crossing the Limpopo River into South Africa.