Economic migrant: “It’s not like we don’t want to be in our own country”

Xenophobic attacks in Soweto and Philippi have made the headlines this year, but away from the spotlight political or economic refugees struggle each day to make a better life in South Africa. BEAUTY MUGERUWA*, a Zimbabwean living in East London, told Bongiwe Tutu her story. 

I’ve been in South Africa for about three years now. I came because I had to find work to support myself and my family. Where I come from, in Zimbabwe, work is really scarce and difficult to get.

South Africans always ask us: “What are you doing here in our country? This country has too many of you people – why don’t you stay in your own country?” And they demand explanations that you cannot always give, because you feel threatened and afraid of giving the wrong answer – if there is even a right one.

It’s not like we don’t want to be in our own country – we do. I want to be home, but I have to earn a living. I tried applying for jobs in my country, and I didn’t even get contacted.

And I have responsibilities at home: my parents died and my aunt needs support for her children and my little sister.

I obtained my diploma in stalls management and inventory control in 2010. I wanted to be involved in procurement of buying and selling goods. But I’ve never actually used what I’m qualified for – I’m even forgetting the things I studied.

But my dream is to pursue more: I want to advance myself. I want to get a stable, formal job where I can have my salary at the end of the month, with benefits like medical aid. But I haven’t been able to secure this since I came to South Africa.

I have dropped my CV at a number of places. I even applied to work at a salon where I could use my hairdressing skills, just so I could be doing something and getting something. I even applied to be a grade R teacher, just to find a starting point.

I did find work at a hair studio. But I saw that I was being taken advantage of. The owner did not pay me what we had agreed on so I stopped working there because it was not getting me anywhere.

We had agreed on a payment of R2,500 a month with transport money, because I have to travel to and from Berea, where I am staying with my uncle and his wife. What they did instead was to deduct the transport money from the agreed salary, so I would end up getting R1,800. If I didn’t have any relatives offering me a place to stay here, I was not going to be able to afford rent and food with that salary.

I’d like to study in South Africa, and become a teacher. I see there is a great need for good teachers, and I have a passion for helping others. If I could get a good job, I would study here and teach. I know I would have to pay for my studies here, because they don’t offer free education to foreigners, and bursaries for foreigners are scarce too. So that’s why I need a stable job.

I am now working as a shopkeeper at a spaza shop and I get R2,500 with transport money which is not bad. But I have to send about R1,800 to R2,000 to my home in Zimbabwe.

The purpose of me coming to this country is so that I can make money – not spend it all. But I always end up with barely enough and I can never do nice things for myself. I don’t even have a South African bank account because there is no use for it; I can’t afford to save money.

I just want to go to school, you know. And become a better me. I sometimes look at South Africans and think they don’t realise how privileged they are. When they get a child, they get money. When they get ill, they get money. When they get old, they get money. When they don’t get food or transport money at school, they strike, and get money.

I wish things were that black and white for some of us.

*Name has been changed.
– Featured image: By Bongiwe Tutu.