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Falling through the Covid cracks: Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa

When things are normal, we tend to forget them. They cross borders and continents seeking greener pastures. They take up the least desired jobs and send money back home. Some do really well, some struggle so much they are too embarrassed to return home. After years of touting the growth of global citizenry, during Covid-19, nothing has mattered more than your nationality. Millions of immigrants are caught in between national borders and are about to fall deeper into dark holes of an unknown future. In Thailand, male labour dorms are hotspots of Covid-19, in India, Bangladeshis were running to the border trying to get back home. Seventy thousand Mozambiquans crossed the border with South Africa before the lockdown. Most Zimbabwean immigrants decided to stay in South Africa, and it is their debacle I will shed light on.

The first crack was on the 20th of March. With the Covid crisis beginning to firmly reach African shores, a peculiar thing transpired; South Africa began to erect a 40 km fence across the border with Zimbabwe. Eyebrows were raised, not a lot of voices were heard but everyone was asking the same questions? Since when does a fence stop disease spreading? Was this always planned or it was just a coincidence? If this action has occurred at any other time, an uproar would have occurred on both sides of Limpopo. But not too many people were fazed by this because a disease that spread by touch and close distance was spreading like wildfire, and that is all that mattered.

The second big crack was the commencement of the lockdown in South Africa. The future is precarious for most people but being an immigrant even more so. The reality is that for every Zimbabwean in a good-paying profession with official an official permit, there are thousands of illegal Zimbabweans. They stay out of sight of the South African State by working in part-time jobs that need no paperwork or work in precarious jobs in restaurants, construction, or agriculture. These are all industries well known for poor working conditions, very limited rights, and long working hours. You would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant with no Zimbabwean waiter/waitress. With tourism being the most affected industry in South Africa, this will have a disproportionate effect on Zimbabweans working pay-check to pay-check.

The third crack was the SA government’s response and social security measures it put in place. There has been an increase of the child grant, use of the unemployment fund as well as funds to poor South Africans who did not have any grant system to fall back on. The obvious but jarring exception to this grant system has been immigrants. Some immigrants will clandestinely benefit from food packages that will be distributed but that is the most they can hope for. There is also the other side of the coin. The SA Finance Minister has come out clearly articulating the need for a post-Covid South Africa to provide jobs to South Africa. With the billions in loans he is providing to firms to survive the crisis, the Minister has a tangible whip over employer’s heads to ensure a significant amount of jobs that were held prior to the crisis by immigrants are taken up by South Africans.

The fourth crack in the ground holding immigrants up has been the Zimbabwean government’s response. The Zimbabwe embassy has been approached by its huge number of citizens seeking support from their government while there are in a foreign land. Unfortunately, the Zimbabwean government has no capacity to support its citizens who are slowly falling into hunger as the lockdown progresses and job opportunities post-Covid look dimmer. Some Zimbabweans have knocked on the Embassy’s door with white flags raised begging to be taken back home where they could at least find a way to survive with family. The irony is that a number of locally-based Zimbabweans rely on remittances from immigrants. Those remittances which have acted as hedges against the falling Zimbabwean dollar are likely to drop significantly which is even more terrible news for all people involved.

The South African constitution has this beautiful phrase that says, “South Africa belongs to all those who live in it.” Most progressives have believed this includes immigrants, but the South African government has clearly drawn the line in the sand delineating who they believe they have a responsibility to support. All these cracks have made the ground holding immigrants up very unstable. South Africa is acting out of their own self-interest and this marks a fundamental turning point in SA’s immigration foreign policy towards Zimbabwe. Most nations post-Covid will be looking within. With the Zimbabwean government and economy not strong enough to hold up their own citizens including returning immigrants, heightened political unrest can be expected. The ZANU government is also at the mercy of the ANC government which allowed ZANU PF to stay in power with their blessing after the contested 2018 elections. In addition, Zimbabwe’s reliance on South Africa economically makes them abide to any decisions made in Pretoria diplomatically or not. The argument that Zimbabwe has helped South Africa end Apartheid although true does not hold anymore. Over the last 20 years, South Africa has paid its debt. What is left between these two nations are immigrants not too sure of what the future holds, near or distant.

These thoughts although written with my fingers would have been impossible without the wisdom of Tafadzwa Kwaramba and Muchengeti Hwacha.

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