A bitter welcome
When Harold Obunga* made his way to Johannesburg from his native Kenya in 1998, he never thought he would end up on Pretoria’s Van der Walt Street handing out flyers to passers-by.
The holder of a postgraduate degree in economics from the University of Nairobi, Obunga had pounded the pavements of Nairobi, chasing one job tip after another for six years before, in desperation, he decided to play the long shot. He pawned his few possessions to raise enough money for a ticket to Johannesburg, in the hope of finding better prospects there.
But when he reached the big city he joined the swelling ranks of unemployed illegal immigrants, whose presence in this country has created a new set of social problems.
After a few months’ job hunting in Johannesburg it soon “dawned on me that my luck here would be no better than back in Kenya”, says Obunga.
“Except,” he adds with weariness, “in Nairobi I wasn’t forced to live the life of a fugitive.” He fears ending up at the notorious Lindela Detention Centre for illegal immigrants if police arrest him.
The four years the Kenyan has spent in South Africa have brought a series of disappointments and frustrations.
He lived in rat-infested rooms in the dilapidated apartment blocks of Yeoville and Berea, and survived by selling newspapers, sweets and apples before deciding to move to Pretoria.
But a job continues to elude him and he has to make do with the R40 a day he receives for handing out flyers.
In the lands north of the Limpopo and south of the Sahara—where the rate of joblessness can be as high as 70%, yearly per capita income can be a meagre $270 and life expectancy can be as low as 45—life has a way of suddenly looking very grim, even for the youngest and the brightest. In most cases, the only option is to leave.
But as the less knowledgeable come to South Africa with expectations of easily finding jobs, educated individuals such as Obunga have found it can be extremely difficult, even in the land of gold.
South African law, at least before the recently promulgated immigration Bill, has been quite categorical, with prospective employers emphasising the need to consider South Africans first for jobs.
The proviso that foreigners have to apply for jobs here while still living in their home countries makes it virtually impossible for any but those with the best connections to get jobs.
Sikasula Muti, formerly a civil engineer in Lusaka, says that being faced with the prospect of a long period of unemployment after his company laid him off, and seeing how difficult it was to apply from Zambia for a job in Johannesburg, he decided to take the chance and come to South Africa, in the hope that his presence would boost his chances.
“What could I do, with the unemployment that is raging in Zambia? It was either I take my chances and come to Johannesburg or watch my family starve,” says Muti, who has a wife and four children in Lusaka.
Muti’s visa expired and he did not find employment, but he decided to stay on in South Africa as an illegal rather than return empty-handed to his starving family.
He bought a second-hand camera and started taking photographs of passers-by outside the Johannesburg Central railway station, charging R5 for a snapshot. “It is not what I expected when I graduated from university 10 years ago. But it’s better than nothing, and I can at least support my family back home with the little I send them.”
Muti’s story is similar to that of Ngolompati Moka, a Cameroonian who used to teach languages at the University of Douala, but is now vending cellphone pouches, keyholders, synthetic leather wallets and other knick-knacks in downtown Johannesburg.
The Department of Home Affairs does not have an exact figure of how many illegal immigrants are in the country, but officials estimate the number is anywhere between two and three million. Officials do not know how many of these illegal immigrants are highly educated, qualified individuals who could, under different circumstances, fill gaps in South Africa’s skilled labour market.
However, it seems that there are many makwerekwere out there with educational standards and job qualifications that many South Africans do not have.
The man selling apples or bananas at Bree Street, or the fellow who accosts you with a gold watch and the other trinkets he has to sell, could very well be a former molecular biologist from the University of Abidjan.
* Not his real name