Taking the rough road to the African Dream -- and back
“One of the guys went to use the bathroom but he never came back,” Reymond Mapakata told me. “When we decided to leave, we found him. A lion was eating him.”
He took a drag from his cigarette and turned his head.
It was early evening on a Friday night and we were standing in front of a popular Johannesburg bar in Braamfontein, waiting for a hip-hop artist to come on stage.
“Another guy lost his toe,” Mapakata continued nonchalantly. “We were running so hard from the lion and he didn’t have shoes.”
He took another drag. “Yes,” he said, “crossing the border can be difficult.”
My crossing is quite different. As the bus arrives at the Harare roadport, I peek out the window. In the crowd of taxi drivers, luggage carriers and waiting relatives, I spot Mapakata. He smiles and waves. I wave back. Finally. After a month of planning the seemingly impossible task of going to Zimbabwe as a journalist and after 21 hours on the bus, squeezed between crispy snack bags and big, soft bums, I have made it.
Mapakata lived through one of the most regrettable times of South Africa’s recent history—the violent xenophobic attacks in May 2008 during which 62 people were killed and more than a hundred thousand displaced.
About one month into our friendship, I received the following text message: “How are you this morning? I’m @ Westgate Court waiting for my charge.”
It was the fifth time during his four years in Johannesburg that Mapakata had been arrested because of his immigration status. Fortunately, this time, he was able to prove his official refugee status and was released after one night. But he worried about the long-term consequences.
“What a humiliation,” he wrote in another text message. “It is a deformation of my character. I’m vulnerable in this country.”
Somewhere along the way, between Smal and Diagonal streets, Mapakata and I became friends, and he invited me to go to Zimbabwe with him. He wanted me to see how attractive the chance of making it in South Africa really is, no matter how small the probability—like playing the lottery. Because, even after four rather unsuccessful years in Africa’s “city of lights”, Mapakata continues to believe in “creating opportunities”, as he calls it.
Estimates of Zimbabweans living in South Africa range from one million to five million. The Southern African Migration Project found that about 25% of all Zimbabwean adults had at some point worked or lived in South Africa. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that remains in the face of a stabilised inflation rate in Zimbabwe and after the Zimbabwe dollar was replaced with the United States dollar and the South African rand.
July 31 this year marked the end of South Africa’s two-year amnesty period for illegal Zimbabwean migrants to apply for legal status. According to international news reports, hundreds have been deported since then, but many head right back. Zimbabwe’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) centre at the Beitbridge border offers deportees food, transport and shelter—for one night only.
If you believe the government-controlled newspaper, The Herald, Zimbabwe’s economy is doing just fine. Although Zimbabwe recorded a negative trade balance during the first nine months of this year, meaning imported goods far exceeded exported goods, “the government is optimistic the economy will continue on a growth path next year”, it says.
But walking through Harare or a rural village in Zimbabwe, things do not seem that good. The shelves in the shops—though not as bare as at hyperinflation’s worst moment—are filled with durable, non-perishable goods rather than fresh produce. The official unemployment rate is a mystery, with estimates reaching 80%. More than two years into the post-Zimbabwean dollar era, a national shortage of change prevails.
But Zimbabweans have learned to cope. They use receipts, tickets and candy in place of change, and they join the informal labour market by selling airtime, cool drinks or ice cream on the street corners to make a living. And they go abroad.
“It is easy to look for money in South Africa,” Tendai Mutaga, one of Mapakata’s cousins and a mother of three, tells me.
Several days into our stay in Harare, we visit Mutaga, who is in her late 20s and lives with Mapakata’s aunt. Mutaga dreams of going to South Africa soon, maybe next year.
Although she does not know anybody who could give her a job and although she is not skilled, she is certain that jobs in South Africa are plentiful.
When I ask her why she thinks it necessary to leave, she says that her husband barely makes enough money as a bricklayer to buy food for the family. What she yearns for is a secure source of income.
“In South Africa, he can get a degree and start a business,” she says.
Curing Zim’s economic ills
Here is the irony: Mutaga and her family live on land that was supposed to cure Zimbabwe’s economic ills. Whitehouse, west of Harare, is one of the regions that was populated by white farmers before the 2000 land-redistribution reform. Now, it is black-owned but the fields next to Mutaga’s home lie bare. Hundreds of thousands of farm jobs disappeared along with the white farmers. The tractors and maize grinder in the courtyard stand still, serving solely as over-large toys for children.
Mutaga and her family rent a small room on the farm, without water or electricity, as the new farm owner did not pay the bills. Instead, they use a single solar panel, brought to them by a relative from South Africa. Just as the Massey-Ferguson farming machinery, the six-bedroom, three-bathroom house, surrounded by a huge veranda and gardens, remains unused.
We walk from a carpeted room with ornamented ceiling to the “Greek temple” tiled kitchen and are told that the new owner, a “very rich man” who works in the “computer and taxi business” lives on another of his three farms. This is just one of his “investments”. He comes to collect the rent from Mutaga on the first of each month.
“South Africa is a good life,” Mutaga tells me when we step out of the farmhouse into the sunlight. “This,” she pointed towards her little wooden house in a corner of the farm, “is not a good life.”
Mapakata left Zimbabwe in the hope of better fortunes and he was willing to sacrifice his life at home for it. He made the decision to leave in the house he had built for his wife and two children in the Bikita district in Masvingo province, about 400 kilometres south of Harare.
When we enter the hut in his home village together four years later, it is filled with dusty, dim light, the only window covered with a pale yellow election cloth with President Robert Mugabe’s face emblazoned across it. The word “indigenisation” at the centre, written in capitals, and several gold bars, drawn at the upper corner of the cloth, promise “total empowerment of the people of Zimbabwe”. Illustrations of women voting and counting ballots encircle the black-and-white Mugabe portrait, which can be found in every official building and many public and private spaces around the country.
The voting women are supposed to represent the long-awaited 2008 “harmonised election”—the one that never came. Although the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) gained the majority of seats, Mugabe declared that its leader Morgan Tsvangirai had fallen short of the required 50% to take office. Thousands of villagers, thought to have voted for the MDC, were displaced or tortured, hundreds were murdered, according to human rights groups.
Three months later, a frustrated Tsvangirai withdrew from the run-offs and a “global political agreement” was put into place making Tsvangirai a powerless prime minister while Mugabe remained very much in control as president.
Many Zimbabweans continue to live in permanent fear of expressing their opinions.
“The system is very sensitive,” Mapakata explains. “If you talk politics, they know right away.”
Some believe that one out of five Zimbabweans is part of the Central Intelligence Organisation—unlikely, but perhaps not unimaginable and definitely effective. The old election cloth in Mapakata’s long-abandoned house explains his desperation more than he could tell me in words.
“Do you think I could have stayed here?” Mapakata asks me. “Do you think I can return here?”
I look around. The two rooms are empty, except for a pair of children’s jeans lying on a table next to a wooden bowl. It depends on what he is willing to compromise, I answer.
Because of his long absence—for three years, Mapakata was unable to return to Zimbabwe—his wife left him for a man with a stable income: a soldier. Mapakata’s occasional jobs in construction and security helped him get by but he did not make enough for remittances or a place to stay in Johannesburg. Mapakata slept on the streets and parks of Highpoint in Hillbrow and the floor of the Central Methodist Church.
As we speak in his empty hut, he sits down and covers his head with his hands. A heart formed out of clay and the words, “With God’s love, never say no”, carved into the wall by his ex-wife, decorate the kitchen. He does not blame her because she took care of their children when he could not. But he misses his family. His children’s wellbeing was why he decided to leave in the first place, and it is still his primary motivation.
Once in South Africa, Mapakata was expected to succeed. The megalopolis in Africa’s economic boom country encapsulates the African Dream in people’s minds. The mythology surrounding the city is deeply entwined in the city’s history, dating back to the discovery of gold in 1886. But ever since Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994, the influx of newcomers to Johannesburg has not ceased.
It makes sense, then, that the shame of failure could be too much to bear. Zimbabweans coming home from abroad often invest in a façade of financial success. They may borrow someone’s car and even money to return with dignity. Mapakata is no exception.
When an old schoolteacher asks him what he is doing in Johannesburg, he replies “working” without hesitation. He is still struggling to find a paid job.
At the same time, Mapakata tries to communicate his hardship to friends and family. But even when they listen, they see the opposite: Mapakata wears nice shoes. Mapakata knows eloquent English words. And Mapakata has brought with him two camera-wielding journalists. His family is in awe, and the last remaining headman in the village decides to try his luck once again as well.
When Mapakata crosses the border back into South Africa at the end of October, he is not alone.