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Home ... tomorrow
Andrew Meldrum
May 03, 2007

Street vendors, lawyers, restaurant staff, doctors, gardeners and office accountants -- all are among a growing number of Zimbabweans who have fled the chaos of their country for refuge in South Africa.

They are a diverse cross-section of Zimbabwe's people, from highly skilled professionals to manual labourers. Most are economic refugees, but a sizeable number are also survivors of state torture and organised violence. Some enjoy affluent and comfortable lives, while the vast majority eke out a living as illegal immigrants.

Virtually all agree that, although they love Zimbabwe, they do not want to return until conditions improve.

An estimated three million Zimbabweans currently live in South Africa. "I cannot go back until Zimbabwe's economy is better," said James Moyo, who works as an accountant for a large Johannesburg firm. "I am supporting my family back in Zimbabwe by sending them money every month. I cannot stop those payments or they will go hungry."

Moyo (25) is one of the many Zimbabweans who are sending money back to their families. Surveys conclude that more than 50% of Zimbabwean families depend on money from family members abroad.

"Once I finished my studies, I decided I had to come to South Africa. I had worked at a good job in Zimbabwe for four years, but I could not even afford to buy myself a bed. When my mother had a diabetes attack she had to go to hospital and I didn't have any money to help her. I felt completely useless. Now I am able to help my family every month."

Moyo's accountancy qualifications, earned in Zimbabwe, are well regarded in South Africa. He has been able to find steady employment and has married his Zimbabwean girlfriend, a graduate of the University of Zimbabwe, and the couple have a baby. He says that a professional worker in Zimbabwe gets the equivalent of about R400 a month. A similar professional in South Africa gets R8 000.

Moyo and his wife live in a pleasant rented flat and have purchased a car -- achievements that would be unimaginable if he had stayed in today's Zimbabwe. "I would love to go back, but things would have to get better. I have a cousin who was tortured by police. But for me it is mostly an economic decision."

Many other Zimbabweans have made the same calculation. Although it is difficult to get work permits, the generally higher levels of literacy in Zimbabwe help many emigrants to find jobs in South Africa.

Beauty Sibusiso (34) left her country nearly 10 years ago. Today, she is a waitress at a trendy Camps Bay restaurant in Cape Town. "I am far from home and the work is hard, but I have purchased a house for my mother in Bulawayo and I am helping her with money. I am working to buy a house here, too. My two daughters are going to good schools."

For every success story there are many Zimbabweans who live much more precarious lives in South Africa. The Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg is home to an estimated 700 Zimbabweans who would otherwise be living on the streets.

More than 100 000 Zimbabweans were deported from South Africa last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration. The rate of deportation is rising sharply. More than 50 000 adults were deported in the first three months of 2007 alone, most between the ages of 18 and 24 years.

Nearly 800 children, aged between 11 and 17, were returned to Zimbabwe in the same period. But the numbers deported are just a fraction of the total number of Zimbabweans coming to South Africa.

Lawyer Gabriel Shumba (33) was an officer of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum. He was tortured twice by Zimbabwean police before he fled to South Africa in 2003. "There are outrageous abuses going on," said Shumba, speaking from his flat in Pretoria. "I was assaulted when I investigated reports of police brutality police beat me and applied electric shocks to my private parts. I was followed and threatened. I left Zimbabwe to be able to live and fight another day."

Shumba founded the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum to assist others seeking asylum. Shumba has prepared cases that are before the African Union's Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. "We are collecting evidence on torture so that the perpetrators will be held accountable," he said.

Michael Majuru was a judge in Zimbabwe who was threatened by state agents after he ruled that The Daily News should be allowed to publish. He fled in 2003. Although he has not succeeded in getting South African authorities to grant him political asylum, he is studying for a master's degree in Human Rights law.

"Every Zimbabwean here in South Africa and across the world wants to go home," said Majuru. "For me, when change comes, I will go right away, to stand on Zimbabwean soil again and to see how things are. But I would not be able to stay. It's not just Mugabe, but the entire administration that must be reformed."

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