By Tafirenyika Wekwa Makunike
ONE weekend in September a Zimbabwean-born Johannesburg-based pastor received a distress call from a Rustenburg police cell. A fifty-plus old woman from the
western suburbs of Bulawayo had been picked up for the first time in the 20 years she had been selling her wares in South Africa. I agreed to accompany the brother to the platinum province to try and get the distressed lady out of jail. When we picked up her passport from the house where she had mistakenly left it we realised that she in fact had a valid visa. So both of us, not being particularly legally astute, thought it would be a piece of cake.
It was easy to understand her distress, for the woman was incarcerated with howling and hallucinating young drug addicts detained to cool off during the weekend. The desk officer took us to her after explaining the predicament but he would not release her unless… Not satisfied, we asked to see the officer-in-charge of the station who fortunately was available that weekend. But he also explained that his “hands were tied” because releasing illegal immigrants was dealt with by Home Affairs, an office operating only during the week unless… Being law abiding people we did not pursue the “unless” and left the poor woman in the cell for the whole weekend.
It seems we have been converted from an industrialising nation into a nation of street vendors. Some politicians in Harare seem to think that is empowerment. I am not sure whether Sithembiso Nyoni is still a full time “minister of street vendors”. What she needs to do is occasionally drive through the streets of South Africa in a vehicle with Zimbabwean registered plates.
Nearly every off-ramp and intersection has a Zimbabwean selling there and for the last two years I have had an opportunity to interface with them. Their stories are not beautiful. They are in Pretoria, Midrand, Randburg, Rosebank, Sandton, Edenvale, Eastgate, Southgate, Benoni, Vereeniging, Springs, Roodepoort and I used to think that it was just a Gauteng issue.
Then I bumped into more Zimbabwean vendors along the coast in Durban, Port Elizabeth and even Cape Town. At one time I was surprised when I met Zimbabwean vendors on the streets of Windhoek.
Their story is the same: “Mudhara ndimwi munopinda kumaoffice titsvagirewo basa, kumusha zvakapressor hapana zvekuita (Man you are the one with access to offices, help us find some formal employment, things are tough back home and we have no option)”. One man I had a long chat with in a traffic jam in Sandton nearly drove me to tears. He had his certificates, including a four-year post high school training and he cannot find a job. Earlier this year a prominent Zimbabwean banker was on television cooing importantly that it was very good that our people were scattered all over the world as this would bring the much needed foreign currency.
As one of the smart alecs of our nation who probably has arranged siphoning mechanisms at source for this foreign currency into overseas accounts, which is then sold to the productive sector at exorbitant rates, I could appreciate his excitement. Yet here was this young man on whom the taxpayer has spent scarce resources educating and should ideally be earning more than R10 000 a month. He barely garners R500. Personally I would be grieved if our young people at the prime of their lives are earning less than 5% of their potential.
One vendor once explained that their greatest loss could be attributed to the police who occasionally pitch up threatening them with deportation just for the sake of collecting bribes from them. Some times they give them all they have to avoid detention centres.
It is that time of the year again when we have that annual circus that others prefer to dignify with the title national budget. Do our members of parliament remember our Finance minister promising that inflation would be 96% by this time? Have they queried his calculations and extrapolations or perhaps they have been too busy to notice?
What is unique about the Zimbabwean dollar that its rate can only be determined by a geriatric politburo as opposed to the market? In Mozambique and even Zambia the currency has been left to the market to stabilise and anyone can walk into a bank and buy foreign currency across the counter.
The kwacha has been in the 4 000 to 5 000 range to the US dollar for the last two years yet the parallel rate of the zimdollar is leaping past that. Apart from the few rich dealers and the politically-connected class with access to foreign currency at the official rate, I am not convinced that the country as a whole has benefited from the current exchange regime. It would be interesting to know which Zanu politician is not hypocritical and has a paper trail showing them changing their foreign currency at the official rate.
The result of political controls is that someone from South Africa can walk in and pick our prime gold mines worth US$80 million for only US$15 million while we sing “land is the economy, the economy is land”. Our own smart alecs have to fight for the 30% crumbs and still pay a premium of $9 million instead of the proportional $5 million that the foreigner paid?
Talking of the platinum province, the Bafokeng people who sit on most of the platinum deposits in South Africa this year received $598 million in royalties from Impala and their king has been talking about getting a 20% stake in the company for his people. For the incessant excitement our own Minister of Mines has been generating with regard to the increasing platinum extraction, how much has been accruing to the people of Mhondoro or Ngezi or Shurugwi who sit on the deposits?
One pastor was trying to draw an analogy between the Zimbabwean situation and what happened in the early church in the book of Acts in the Bible. He said the church spread rapidly to other places after persecution in Jerusalem and his point was that Zimbabweans have spread to other places because of the difficulties at home.
There is no doubt that many Zimbabweans who have left the country have been very successful in their various pursuits. I have met many highly mobile lawyers, engineers, scientists and accountants but in applauding people like Peter Moyo, deputy MD of Old Mutual South Africa or Isaac Takawira, we often forget the majority languishing at the other end of the spectrum.
Tafirenyika Wekwa Makunike is a business consultant based in Johannesburg.