An Inevitable Exodus

SOUTH Africa is arguably one of the most popular destinations for many Zimbabweans.


This is not a new phenomenon but a practice that has been there since the 19th century when mostly men would cross into South Africa for work.

Firstly it was in the sugar plantations in Natal but later on it was on the diamond mines in Kimberley and then on gold mines on the Witwatersrand.

People were recruited through the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (Wenela) — an agency which had exclusive rights to recruit labour from the region — to work in South African mines.  While some people went to “Wenela” willingly, some historians argue that many were coerced into wage labour through imposition of taxes which had to be paid in cash.

The emigration into South Africa slowed somewhat after Independence as people were hopeful that the new dispensation would bring in better prospects for them. At the same time some restrictions on migration to South Africa were imposed as the government sought to retain skills and labour to spearhead economic development.

Since then, the movement of Zimbabweans into South Africa, particularly after the economic decline started, has in fact increased. While some people have been crossing the borders legally, a substantial number used undesignated crossing points because they did not have travel documents. Some of the border jumpers had passports but could not meet the stringent visa requirements.

Most people go to South Africa in search of better employment opportunities, some to do shopping while others, especially the rich, are attracted by the affluent life and the good facilities in the cities. The latter group usually buys homes in South Africa and obtains residents’ permits.

The rich and professional emigrants ordinarily have the necessary travel documents. On the other hand most of those seeking menial jobs would either bribe immigration officials at borders to gain entry or use the numerous illegal points on the porous border to cross. In the southern areas of the country, that is Matabeleland and Midlands, most prospective emigrants pay couriers popularly known as umalayitsha who would deliver them exactly at the doorsteps of their destinations in South Africa.    

In recent times there has been a surge of young professionals and artisans relocating into South Africa running away from the economic implosion in Zimbabwe. As opposed to their counterparts who went to the UK in the early 2000s and ended up doing menial jobs many of those emigrating to South Africa are getting better jobs in areas such as construction, engineering, teaching, banking and finance among others. They are benefiting from South Africa’s recruitment drive under the quota work permits programme for foreigners who have scarce and critical skills.

Those who cannot afford the costs of applying for quota work permits despite having the skills often travel as visitors and look for casual jobs on the farms and in the informal sector. The resultant local skills gap is not apparent now because the economy is dysfunctional but when growth returns the situation will be a major constraint.

Emigration to South Africa is likely to intensify following the scrapping of visa requirements. On average, 2500-3 000 people have been crossing the border legally every day and the number is expected to shoot up. On the first day of the visa-free system, the Beitbridge Border Post was overwhelmed with people wanting to cross into South Africa.

Most of the people cleared were those seeking employment.  The new system requires people to apply for a free 90-day visitor’s permit at the border. In addition, Zimbabweans who cannot qualify for the normal work permit can now apply to do casual work. This is expected to reduce the number of people applying for asylum.

For starters all those unemployed people in Zimbabwe may want to try their luck down south. In addition even those in employment may find the temptation of the rand too good to resist.

Most people may be driven away by the low wages in the country averaging US$100 per month in an environment of high living costs. Some professionals might also use the casual work permit as an opportunity to arrange for permanent permits while they are in South Africa. The loss of skills may scupper economic recovery in the country while benefiting South Africa which has a major demand for labour at all levels ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

Unlike those in the Diaspora who repatriate money to Zimbabwe, people who work in neighbouring countries often bring in commodities and not money. Prices for most goods are much cheaper in those countries than in Zimbabwe and besides, the transport costs are reasonable. The importation of goods at household level by Zimbabweans working in those countries and by cross border traders will reduce consumer demand for local goods.

Already companies are facing stiff competition from imports which land in the country at much lower prices. If the temporary suspension of import duty on most items was bad news for local suppliers then the scrapping of visas could be catastrophic. Maybe, or maybe not!

BY RANGA MAKWATA