The migrant who calls South Africa home

Ernesto (37) from Mozambique has lived in South Africa for 20 years, but still does not have a residency permit.

Every month he travels by taxi back to Mozambique, where he gets his passport stamped with a visitors’ visa for another 30 days. He says he has gone through at least 50 passports, as they fill up quickly with permit stamps.

Because Ernesto is a migrant, his name has been changed.

He lives in Sebokeng, about 45 minutes from Johannesburg, and rents a shack in Zone 7 of the township from which he runs a barber shop. He sublets part of the shack to a woman who runs a hairdressing salon. He sells airtime and fruit, at this time of year oranges for R1 each.

When the Mail & Guardian visited Sebokeng this week, Ernesto, a stocky man with a firm handshake, said he had left Mozambique in 1995 with his late brother “for a better future”.

“I don’t want to go back to Mozambique to live, because I have grown up here and lived most of my life,” he said.

“My mother died when I was over a year old. My father died when I was 12 years old.  Life was hard in my country, so we had to cross over to South Africa.”

His brother died two years ago after a long illness. 

Ernesto does not qualify for a residence permit because he falls into the category of unskilled labour.

“Life was hard in Mozambique because of the war. My brother and I never got a chance to go to school,” said Ernesto in SeSotho. As a result, he cannot read or write.

“I am sick and tired of going to Mozambique every month and re-enter South Africa to have my passport stamped,” he says.

He went back to Mozambique in 2010 and met and married a local woman. She is now a migrant in Sebokeng and they take the taxi to the border together every month. He says his wife is unemployed and looks after their two children.

He says he did not want to marry a South African “because they like partying”.

Like many others in Sebokeng, he manages to eke out a living from his barber shop. Others run shebeens and spaza shops.

He rents his shop for R400 a month and makes on average about R1 000, which he says is not enough to support his family.

When he thinks of the future, he sees himself owning a fruit and vegetable shop.

He says Sebokeng was spared the worst of the xenophobic violence because “most people who live here are not originally from here, so it’s not possible for foreigners to fight each other”.

According to the 2011 census, there are about 2.2-million immigrants in the country.

Whether he gets the right papers or not, he says he “can’t fit” in Mozambique and calls South Africa home. He even wears a South African rugby supporters’ jersey.

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