It is the small things that get you. Like, Nathaniel’s wife is six months pregnant. He is a young man who, anywhere else in the world, would be making his way up the corporate ladder. She is somewhere in the deep dark depths of Mutare, Zimbabwe. He is working as a gardener in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. He cannot go home.
The last time he went home, in December last year, it took him two months to get back into South Africa. He crossed the Limpopo River, like so many thousands of his compatriots every day, on foot. He was arrested and sent back home.
Failure is not an option for people like Nathaniel. If he does not get to South Africa, his wife and child will die of hunger. So he made the perilous trip again, carrying only a 500ml bottle of water. This time he succeeded, arriving in Johannesburg bedraggled, gaunt and thirsty.
He lives in a room in a flat in Hillbrow. He is regularly arrested because he has no official papers and has to bribe the police with amounts as small as R10 to be let off into the seething suburb. He knows one thing: he travels with at least R20 in his pocket just in case he is stopped. He knows it is usually enough to get him out.
I have known Nathaniel for three years now. Instead of things getting better, his problem just gets more intractable. He cannot buy fake South African documents — an identity document and passport, primarily — because the police ignore these anyway. They have managed to work out the accents, he says.
Without these documents he cannot get a formal job, he cannot engage in any commerce, he cannot put his numerous talents out into the marketplace. He quests, and yet he is condemned to a dark, underground, desperate life. He is perpetually playing hide-and-seek with the law; gambling with his life as he attempts to get home through game parks and a crocodile-infested river.
He is not the only one. Nowadays, everywhere one goes in South Africa, there are brutalised Zimbabweans walking the streets, their lives a terrible cycle of waking up, despairing, seeking a better life and despairing again. They are not political activists or people who seek an insurrection in Zimbabwe. They are not political at all. They are the type you harangue about their responsibilities to democracy; you beg them to vote. They are ordinary human beings trying to make their way through life.
And now they are just a hungry people, shamed into an ignominious exile. South Africa’s official statistics on the number of illegal Zimbabweans here are a joke. The more believable figure bandied about most by NGOs is three million. I know that in every aspect of my life there is a Zimbabwean.
At work, in my job as a media consultant, I meet brilliant young Zimbabweans. In my social life, I meet and drink and weep with Zimbabweans. They are the lucky ones: they have jobs and can afford to buy a beer. They have papers.
The tragedy is in the parallel worlds of the domestic worker, the gardener and the street seller. The tragedy is the life of the ordinary man and woman we used to call, in Marxist parlance, “the most advanced class, the worker”. They are here now, with their vaunted consciousness, looking after our children, fixing burst car tyres in Hillbrow. They don’t have papers.
These are people who go home, knowing that they might never get back. Then they get back and wonder how they are going to make that trip again. They have left their mothers and fathers behind. They have children in Zimbabwe because they still believe the schooling is better there.
Until one day, when Dorothy tells me that there are only three teachers at her child’s primary school. Her daughter has been going to school every day since January and has still not received a single lesson. “Perhaps, next year, I can bring her to South Africa to live with me,” she says.
It is these small, human moments that cause a weakness in my limbs, the oomph as my breath rushes out of my whole body. It is not President Thabo Mbeki refusing to condemn torture of opposition activists or the closure of newspapers. These make me angry.
The Zimbabweans are not coming. The Zimbabweans are here. They are no longer a vast, depressed, heart-wrenching mass. They are men and women, once proud, reduced to begging, to hustling, to a shifty-eyed nether world. It should not be like this.
As a young man I spent a year in Zimbabwe studying for my A-levels. The people I met were proud of their country and their leader. They worked hard and wanted to do well. They wanted their children to be better human beings — materially and spiritually — than they were. Most importantly, they believed that these dreams could and would be achieved.
Being there, one knew that this could be done. The education system was pumping out well-spoken, well-grounded, inquisitive minds. The economy was open and the international community believed that this remained a place to invest. The transition from colonial rule to democracy had been handled in exemplary fashion. And then … and then they are here. They are not refugees, because we say there is no problem in Zimbabwe, and our department of home affairs will not give them refugee status. They are not freedom fighters, because Zimbabwe is free, right? So the Zimbabweans I knew are a nothing people now.
Every day I meet these nothing people. Sometimes I get a call: “Perhaps you can help me …”.
These are the little things and I wonder why they do not get to so many of my fellow countrymen. How, fresh from oppression and exile ourselves, we don’t wonder why so many people can want to leave their mothers and children to seek a better life elsewhere. Why, when we claim to put people at the centre of our every diplomatic initiative, do we keep quiet when evil reigns just a few hundred kilometres to our north?