/ 31 August 2007

Zimbabweans flee to more misery in SA

Crispin Mutamba fled exhausting bread and fuel queues in Zimbabwe for wealthy South Africa, only to find himself stuck in another one for three months outside Home Affairs in Pretoria hoping to get permission to stay.

The chances are slim.

Mutamba can’t find a job or a home. Like many Zimbabweans, he feels like a pariah, resented by South Africans and blamed for everything from car hijackings to high unemployment.

”Sometimes we have to look for food in trash bins to survive,” said Mutamba (29).

South African officials say Zimbabweans are not entitled to refugee status because they are economic migrants.

But Zimbabwe is crumbling.

Few people can cope with chronic shortages of food, fuel and foreign currency and experts predict the world’s highest inflation rate — already more than 7 000% — will keep rising.

President Robert Mugabe, who is accused of widespread human rights abuses, has made it clear that dissent will not be tolerated as he struggles to contain the economic crisis.

The defiant leader faces few political challenges from a divided opposition and his powerful Western foes, whom he accuses of plotting to oust him, have failed to weaken the veteran leader with economic sanctions.

So millions of Zimbabweans in South Africa live in limbo, with hundreds more arriving each day.

”Most of them are young and energetic young men in their 20s, in search for a better life, they are mostly economic migrants,” Busisiwe Mkhwebane-Tshehla, national director for refugees affairs at Home Affairs, told Reuters.

The lucky ones get menial jobs or spend all day on their feet at traffic intersections, selling dusters or handing out free pamphlets, barely making enough to survive, some of them university educated who left behind office jobs back home.

Zimbabweans can be arrested at any minute for being illegal immigrants. So the longer Mutamba and others wait outside Home Affairs, the bigger the risk of detention or deportation.

Lip service

Many Zimbabweans feel South African President Thabo Mbeki and other regional leaders have only paid lip service to the suffering in their country, a view shared by Western diplomats.

They have failed to pressure Mugabe to find a solution and still respect him as an African liberation hero, deep bonds that overshadow one of the continent’s gravest humanitarian crises.

”Government needs to stop burying its head in the sand over the rampant influx of undocumented Zimbabweans into South Africa and take proactive action to gain some form of control over the situation,” South African immigration lawyer Gary Eisenberg said in a statement.

Applications for asylum and refugee status, meanwhile, are piling up. Demand is so high that Home Affairs has designated three days a week for Zimbabwean applicants.

While prices run wild in Zimbabwe, many basic goods are also out of reach for them in South Africa, let alone the flashy luxury cars and glitzy malls symbolising an economic boom.

Mutamba and hundreds of other Zimbabweans face daily humiliations. They line up outside Home Affairs all day and huddle around makeshift fires at night. Thin cardboard strips are their beds. Washing up means going to a water tap at a nearby cemetery.

Some, like Joseph Moyo, had hopes, but not for long. He stands beside a fence outside Home Affairs and tries to sell bananas to passersby.

”I have no place to go to, there is no shelter, there is no food except when people come from the church and donate food,” said Moyo (20) who is from Harare.

”We are now living like animals”.

Poison, sex

But that may be better than living back home.

Moyo’s fellow Zimbabweans could soon face hunger back home unless relief efforts are accelerated in a country once viewed as a regional bread basket.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has said hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans are starting to run out of food and has made an urgent appeal to donor countries.

”Vulnerable families will be forced to resort to eating potentially poisonous wild plants or exchanging sex for food and other desperate measures to survive,” it said.

Being thousands of kilometres away from that harsh reality has done little to raise Brian Zenzo’s spirit. Dreams of a successful future have faded. His parents can no longer afford to pay for his education.

”Maybe one day I will go back if there is a change and things are better, and there are jobs and food,” he said.

It could be a long wait.

Wage freeze

Meanwhile, Mugabe has banned all pay rises without state authorisation and handed himself extra powers in a new bid to curb the world’s highest inflation rate, state media said on Friday.

As part of the package of measures which were gazetted by Mugabe and detailed in the government mouthpiece Herald newspaper, all rents, school fees and service charges must be frozen for the next six months.

”No one in private or public sectors can now raise salaries, wages, rents, service charges, prices and school fees on account of increases or anticipated increases in the consumer price index, the official and unofficial exchange rates, or valued added tax and duty,” said the government-controlled publication.

Increases in salaries or fees can only be made in future with specific approval from the national incomes and prices commission, a body headed by Mugabe, and without any link to the inflation rate which currently stands at over 7 600%.

”The net effect of the charges will be to push inflation down since all increases will be by less than the current inflation rate,” the report said.

”Those who breach the standards set by the commission when increasing pay, fees or prices can be fined … jailed for up to six months, or given both punishments,” it added.

The latest edicts come two months after the government effectively ordered retailers and businesses to slash their prices in half, a move which has led to widespread shortages in the Southern African nation. – Reuters, AFP