CORONAVIRUS & IMMIGRANTS

Destitute Zimbabweans in South Africa are given help to return home

By Carien Du Plessis 18 May 2020

Many Zimbabweans fell through the cracks when the coronavirus crisis hit South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

More than 400 Zimbabweans left destitute by the Coronavirus lockdown left South Africa last week, half of them with the help of a prominent businessman. More are likely to follow this week.

The businessman who helped President Emmerson Mnangagwa escape from Zimbabwe to South Africa just before he went on to replace Robert Mugabe in 2017 is now helping Zimbabweans left destitute by the coronavirus lockdown to return home. 

On Friday, five buses sponsored by Zimbabwean-born Justice Maphosa and carrying 204 of his compatriots departed from the consulate near Eastgate Shopping Centre in Bedfordview.

“It is obviously a challenging time for everyone,” Maphosa said in response to written questions. 

“Immigrants have not been spared, with many of them suffering loss of income and struggling to sustain themselves while in South Africa.” 

He said when he heard about the plight of fellow Zimbabweans, he thought it would be a worthy cause to assist the Zimbabwean embassy to bring them home. Maphosa’s own business has not been spared by recent events. 

“Like all other businesses, our operations were disrupted by the lockdown, but we’re hopeful things will pick up at some point,” he said. 

His Big Time Strategic Group has interests in the technology and ICT sector and has a number of municipalities among its clients. 

Maphosa paid an undisclosed amount for the travel, food and personal protective equipment of the travellers, but the Zimbabwean government will take care of their 21-day quarantine once they arrive in the country, which has thus far only recorded 44 Covid-19 cases and four deaths. The buses were headed for Harare, Bulawayo and Masvingo. 

The Zimbabwean ambassador to South Africa, David Hamadziripi, said the embassy had facilitated travel back to Zimbabwe for these passengers as well as 237 others, who could afford to pay the R600 one-way ticket on scheduled commercial coaches or who drove back in their own cars. 

“We are also working on another group to be assisted to return to Zimbabwe. We expect in the coming week to get the necessary permission from South Africa for this to happen.” 

He said the passengers needed permission to travel across provinces, and also to be cleared at the Beitbridge border post. 

“Because of health measures and social distancing, it means at the reception halls [at the border] there are limitations as to how many can be in that room at one time, so it means it takes a bit longer to clear a group like that.” 

At the moment, only essential goods travel and citizens or those with permanent residence permits being repatriated to Zimbabwe are allowed to pass through the border.

Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister Sibusiso Busi Moyo told the state-owned Herald earlier this month that the government was expecting to repatriate around 3,000 citizens from South Africa, and 4,000 more have registered for food assistance. But Hamadziripi said the Zimbabwean government was unable to help Zimbabweans in South Africa who are starving. 

“We passed it on to the International Organisation for Migration and other organisations to see if they are able to assist them. There are also some associations of Zimbabweans that have come together and they are able to assist fellow Zimbabweans here. It is a difficult situation, quite challenging. That’s why some Zimbabwean nationals opt to go back.” 

There is no data on the number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa, but there are estimates that it could be well over a million. Many of them fell through the gaps when the coronavirus crisis hit South Africa. Faith (not her real name) is one of them. When she took retrenchment from her job as a teacher at a Cape Town school shortly after giving birth to her fourth child in November, reports of the Covid-19 epidemic were only beginning to emerge from China. 

“It took me three months to raise my baby enough so that I could go out to find a job again, and then I worked for one week [as a nanny to a 19-month-old] before the corona came. With a virus going around, the mother didn’t want to keep me coming. I stayed at home even before the lockdown was announced,” she said. 

She has been looking for other work, but the coronavirus pandemic has made this next to impossible. Her husband, who works at a company that manufactures toiletries for hotels, has also been sitting at home. His employer claims to have applied to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief, but nothing has come of this money as yet. 

Faith arrived in South Africa in 2006 as an asylum seeker and her papers have since lapsed, which means she’s not entitled to any government relief.

“I have four children and a husband here. I can’t just pack up and go, and I don’t know where I would begin [to make a new life] in Zimbabwe,” she said. 

“I don’t have a salary at all from my side, and they stopped paying my husband in the first month of lockdown. There is no money coming in. Things are hard in South Africa. Besides the corona, things were just so expensive lately. We have just been surviving hand to mouth, providing for the family and kids, but for savings, there was nothing.”

The older children are 15, 10 and four years old, and the family lives in a backyard dwelling in Mitchells Plain. Faith said some parents from the school where she used to work helped to organise a collection and food parcels for the family, which will see them through the next two weeks.

“The older children, they understand when there is not enough food, but with the younger ones, it’s really difficult,” she said. DM

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