South Africa’s grass is still greener

It is not if, but when. That seems to be the intention of Malawian refugees who are back in their motherland about returning to South Africa. 

One returnee, Sangwani Gunda, told amaBunghane he and others expect to go back soon. They’re being told by their South African friends that calm has returned. “We can’t withstand the economic hardship here,” he said.

Another Malawian, who returned to South Africa last week, said most people felt cheated by their government’s promises that they would be taken care of once they got home. 

“They promised to put us into technical colleges to learn entrepreneurial skills and give us capital and equipment to start businesses,” he said. “When we arrived in Blantyre we were given money for transport home, a blanket and a plastic bucket. Nobody talked about skills training.”

AmaBhungane understands some 70 beneficiaries of the Malawi government’s repatriation programme, planning to return to South Africa, were stopped by Malawian immigration authorities at border posts.

The return — driven by Malawi’s poverty — threatens to undermine the 200-million kwatcha (R5-million) programme. Malawi was the only African country to launch a repatriation exercise in April for 3?200 of its citizens following a wave of attacks on foreigners in which two Malawians were killed. Five others died in transit to Malawi, Information Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa told a media conference this month.

The repatriation effort
Paul Chiunguzeni, of the department of disaster management affairs, said government acted quickly to save Malawian expatriates in South Africa. “We established a ministerial committee to facilitate repatriation and ensure that all the victims were brought home safely,” he said.

Six buses carrying the first group of 390 returnees arrived in Blantyre on April 20; the last bus, carrying 65 returnees, arrived on May 15. Malawi’s immigration department records show 3?300 xenophobia victims have so far returned to Malawi, using 40 buses hired in South Africa.

Chiunguzeni said the government had suspended the exercise until it received notification from the Malawi high commission in South Africa that other Malawians living in camps wished to come home. He denied reports that government halted the programme because people were returning to South Africa days after having been repatriated.

Adam Ali, the repatriation co-ordinator in Durban, said this week that about 40 Malawians were still camping at the Mariannhill mosque in Durban awaiting repatriation, while 157 others not in the camps had approached the Islamic relief organisation Firqatud Dawah for help. 

On April 30, immigration officers at the Dedza border post detained 27 Malawians who tried to return to South Africa in the bus the government had hired to take them home. “Although some had valid documents, we wouldn’t allow them to return to South Africa because government has spent a lot of money repatriating them,” said officer Macfelix Mapemba. 

Days earlier police in Lilongwe detained a KwaZulu-Natal-registered bus carrying 70 passengers, including six repatriated Malawians.

They were acting on a tip-off: passengers had refused to leave the bus during a garage stop and instead pulled down the curtains to hide themselves. The driver and conductor bolted when they saw the police.

Many return to SA “daily”
On May 7, immigration officers at the Mwanza border post detained another South African bus for allegedly smuggling repatriated Malawians to South Africa.

Mwanza border spokesperson Pasqualli Zulu said, “All 35 passengers got out and walked to the border as if they were visiting friends in Mozambique. It made us suspicious.”

He said 14 passengers were arrested. The rest ran away. 

An immigration official who asked to remain nameless said “a few unlucky individuals” had been caught and many others were returning to South Africa on a daily basis.

Malawi’s director of the nongovernmental organisation Innovations for Poverty Action, Thomas Chataghalala Munthali, said returnees may have weighed the options and decided they were doing better in South Africa. “Malawi is poor … most of those who go to work in South Africa are unskilled,” he said. 

Another Malawian said he could not cope with the difficulties he experienced when he arrived at his home in the southern district of Phalombe, hard hit by the recent floods.

“I found my village completely washed away; people have nothing to eat as the crops were also destroyed. There was no hope. I had no house and was relying on relatives who were also struggling to find food.” 

He is optimistic he will find piecework in South Africa.

Chiunguzeni said the return of those repatriated was frustrating. “Government did what it could. It’s sad for them to be returning [so soon] after arriving.” 

Chiunguzeni said the government couldn’t afford to give returnees extra money. Civil society organisations in Malawi, including the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, have urged the government to create employment opportunities as a long-term solution to the Malawian exodus down south.

The government says unemployment will be partly solved through a community college initiative President Peter Mutharika launched in March, which seeks to train rural youths in entrepreneurial skills that will make them self-sufficient.

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