‘I speak everything from Shona to the Bangladeshi language. People are the same all over, we all the same, and here we speak the same language – money,” says Meisie “Ma’Gogo” Vhakwevho (55).
She smashes a block of ice on the cement paving and neatly packs it into a cooler box with an assortment of bottled soft drinks, preparing for people, scorched by the sun, who come to buy from her table.
“People say I love money – ande vele, I do. Phela, my last-born, was small, maybe three years old, when I first started my business here.
“These people who come and use this office, I’m telling you, they are like parents to my children. They are the ones who support my children, and without them I don’t know where will I go,” says Ma’Gogo.
A cheeky and witty, primarily Venda-speaking Ma’Gogo sees herself as international, mingling with people from all walks of life and from all over Africa. She has learnt a little of several languages, though she says she has yet to master them.
Meisie Vhakwevho is a hawker at the home affairs offices in Marabastad.
Most of the people on the sidewalks surrounding the home affairs office in Pretoria’s Marabastad agree that the administration has improved significantly, meaning less of a wait for many travellers.
For traders like Ma’Gogo, selling everything from loose cigarettes and airtime to meals, this is bad for business. But there are still many who wait for days at a time for their paperwork to be completed.
A frustrated Prince Nkibeka (a pseudonym because he didn’t want his name used) is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and has been told that his application documents are missing.
Every day for two weeks, he has come to ask about developments with his asylum papers. His name was switched with his father’s and he had to get an affidavit to fix the problem. But it’s only one of his problems.
Some queuing outside the offices say, although the new system is better, largely putting an end to the endless waiting of the old one, in some cases documents still go missing, as Nkibeka can testify to. He says he has been travelling from eMalahleni (Witbank) to Marabastad every day, reluctant to stay in local accommodation.
‘Quick, in and out’
His lone struggle is in stark contrast to the welcome Ethiopians receive from their countrymen living in South Africa. Hearty handshakes, hugs and congratulatory smiles acknowledge the long journey they have undertaken to arrive here.
“We come, we fetch you, if maybe you come here on Tuesday to get your papers, on Wednesday. We come take you with the car early in the morning. In the house, you sleep, you eat. They come, we make our own original food, we cook for you. And then in the morning at six, we drop you off here again, because they [home affairs officials] take the boxes away at nine,” says Tesome Masoro (34), who has been living in South Africa for 11 years.
He’s one of the many “brothers” who wait for any new arrivals, mostly from Ethiopia, in need of assistance with accommodation and transport. It’s a friendly face after a long journey filled with “anti-foreigner” sentiment in minibus taxis on the way to Johannesburg.
People like Masoro and Shameali Emmanuel (30) act as informal hosts and travel agents. His brother started the business after he arrived in South Africa in the early 1990s and needed a helping hand. His brother secured a building that operates as both a church and accommodation.
“We make traditional food from home and roast our coffee beans, and they sleep in the temple. I’m a Christian man,” says Emmanuel.
A plate of food can cost from R25 to R40, and accommodation is R40 to R50 a night. Emmanuel says they don’t really receive appeals for help from people from other countries.
Emmanuel’s business is to provide safety. Many other people, especially those from the Southern African Development Community region, sleep on the ground outside the home affairs office, forming a queue to secure a place for when the office opens in the morning.
Ma’Gogo, who starts her week on a Sunday afternoon, can spend the whole night selling tea, soup and coffee to those who have the cold ground as a bed.
Before the introduction of the new system, those forced to bear days of waiting were subjected to filthy, overcrowded rooms, paying R30 for the luxury of sleeping on their haunches and holding on to their belongings for fear of theft.
Now, fewer and fewer people find it necessary to sleep close to the home affairs office.
Emmanuel says: “The people lining up outside the gates at home affairs have gone now … people coming from Cape Town would stay for days, but now it’s quick, quick, in and out, people get their documents and they go.”