ANALYSISBy Wongai Zhangazha
Barely two years after 26-year old Fortune Nyikadzino’s life almost came to a premature and horrific end in Verulam, Durban, at the hands of machete-wielding gangs who threatened to destroy his shack if he did not leave South Africa, the country has once again witnessed a new wave of xenophobic attacks.
High unemployment levels in the country have forced many Zimbabweans to cross borders into neighbouring countries, especially South Africa.
However, less than an hour after stepping out of one of the five buses used to repatriate Zimbabweans, caught up in xenophobia attacks, Nyikadzino in May 2015 told the Zimbabwe Independent he intended to immediately return to South Africa.
“I left in 2013 and I’ve come back with nothing because you could not retrieve anything during the attacks. I had not been paid, but once this thing (xenophobia) is over, I will go back because life is hard here in Zimbabwe. Look, most people are not employed and they are just vendors. And I had not been paid since the month was not over,” Nyikadzino said in not-so-proficient Zulu, spoken with a heavy local accent.
Despite his experience with machete-wielding and balaclava-clad gangs, who left a trail of destruction at the informal settlement, Verulam, Nyikadzino still returned to South Africa because he felt Zimbabwe has nothing to offer him.
The 2015 xenophobic attacks, largely concentrated in Durban and Johannesburg, left seven foreigners dead and displaced around 5 000 people. Due to the lack of jobs in the country, Zimbabweans like Nyikadzino are being forced to skip the border into neighbouring countries, especially South Africa, to find employment.
Amid a deepening economic crisis–characterised by a debilitating liquidity crunch, as evidenced by a severe cash shortage, low capacity utilisation of less than 50% and widespread company closures, thousands of workers are being thrown onto the streets daily as companies struggle to stay afloat.
In 2015, a total of 5 333 workers were retrenched, with another 3 510 laid off last year, bringing the total retrenched in the last two years to 8 843.
Zimbabweans like Nyikadzino now have to contend with a fresh wave of xenophobic attacks, especially in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria.
Last week, South African police reported that at least 20 shops and homes were looted and burnt in attacks on foreign residents on February 17.
The attacks have been mainly blamed on Democratic Alliance Johannesburg’s mayor Herman Mashaba who in December last year said immigrants are “holding our country to ransom” and equated immigrants to criminals.
Despite the harsh realities of being an illegal immigrant, many Zimbabweans are forced by the economic situation to soldier on. Many Zimbabwean women have been forced into prostitution and striptease in such places as Hillbrow to earn a living.
Many others are doing menial jobs at restaurant and farms, often working back-breaking hours for very little reward.
Despite the harsh realities forcing Zimbabweans to look for employment outside the country, many citizens were surprised that President Robert Mugabe does not understand that his ruinous economic policies have left millions of people with no choice, but to look for opportunities outside the country.
Speaking during his 93rd birthday celebrations in Matobo last Saturday, Mugabe appeared surprised as to why Zimbabweans were leaving the country to look for jobs outside the country.
“He (United States president Donald Trump) is going to build a wall; yesterday he said there will be a wall soon. That jobs should be given to Americans. Now when you have a situation like that in America, surely for you to want to go to America to look for jobs is stupid,” Mugabe said.
“In a country that is chasing non-Americans, what is it that you lack in your country? What is it that you will get in America which you cannot get in Zimbabwe?”
One may substitute America with South Africa or any other country, but Mugabe’s comments were seen as evidence that he is out of touch with the realities faced by many Zimbabweans.
It appears Mugabe does not understand that his ruinous policies have left many people with no choice but to seek for opportunities elsewhere, never mind the xenophobic attacks or the possibility of being killed by crocodiles while crossing the Limpopo River.
Social commentator Stanley Tinarwo said Mugabe’s comments are an indication that he does not accept responsibility for the hardships faced by many Zimbabweans.
“It points to a president who refuses to accept responsibility for the fact that millions of his fellow countrymen and women have left to seek better economic opportunities in other people’s countries and betrays his apparent lack of concern at their actual plight. Where he should be showing statesmanlike empathy, he shows arrogance and disdain,” he said.
Zimbabwe Exiles Forum chairperson Gabriel Shumba said Mugabe needs to introspect more on the reasons that millions are fleeing the country.
“If Zimbabwe does not restore its former glory among the community of nations, we will continue to see our people leaving for other countries. In any event, there are various reasons people leave because we are now in a global village. President Mugabe only has to ask himself why he has a son (Robert Jnr), who lives in Dubai and why Bona studied in Hong Kong, and he will better appreciate why citizens go abroad.”
He said xenophobic attacks in South Africa are inextricably linked to the politics of the country where political leaders, either at a national level, or at the local level, use foreign nationals as a scapegoat to explain away socio-political challenges, or to obtain political mileage and momentum for their own political parties.
“Thus, leaders trigger off attacks, either wittingly or unwittingly, but the grand purpose is usually to seek political capital. At the foundation of all this is of course impunity. A lot of foreign nationals were assaulted, and some died as a result of the attacks since 2008. Many of the culprits are usually not brought to book, which emboldens many others to carry out these crimes against humanity. It is important to observe that many African nationals in South Africa live with afrophobia on a daily basis, and that is not limited to attacks. Some of the manifestations of this afrophobia are in institutions such as police, health and other public services,” Shumba said.
“It is unfortunate that there is only an outcry when xenophobia takes the form of actual, physical attacks, yet Africans in South Africa suffer indignities on a daily basis. One of the serious problems that make it difficult to deal with this is the denialism of some in authority, who pass it off as mere criminality.”
Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch Dewa Mavhinga said the recurring waves of xenophobic violence against Zimbabweans and other African foreigners in South Africa points to South Africa’s failure to thoroughly investigate and punish those responsible for the violence.
“Some South African political leaders appear to be stoking the fires of xenophobia for their own political gain to divert attention from pressing challenge of basic service delivery. Most Zimbabweans are not in South Africa by choice, they fled economic and political ruin in Zimbabwe, something Mugabe and his government appear oblivious to,” Mavhinga said.
“When countries like Nigeria issue strong statements in support of their nationals in South Africa, Mugabe’s government appears to have taken a clearly partisan view that all Zimbabweans who fled the country are opposition supporters not deserving of government’s support. Mugabe’s statements that Zimbabweans should return home show that he is completely out of touch with the reality of the state of total collapse of the economy in Zimbabwe.”