HomeOpinionWhy Zimbabweans don’t matter to SA?

Why Zimbabweans don’t matter to SA?

Janet Zhou
Human rights activist
Recently, I participated in a powerful policy dialogue organised by Sapes on the plight of Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa. Following the decision not to renew Exemption Permits for 178 000 Zimbabweans at the end of December 2021, the existential xenophobia, which some have described as Afrophobia as it is mainly meted at African foreigners in South Africa, heightened.

I choose to go further and characterise it as “Zimbophobia” given the surge in xenophobic incidences from 2005 to date. The surge coincides with the mass migration of Zimbabweans as the political, social and economic crisis deepened during that period due to a number of factors.

As was pointed out by Moeletsi Mbeki at the SAPES Policy Dialogue, and I largely share the same opinions, the mass migration of Zimbabweans has mostly to do with the inimical policies of the Zanu PF government since 2000. Beginning with the ill-conceived land reform process (displacing hundreds of thousands of commercial farm workers and their families), the downstream effects of the disruption of commercial agriculture (collapsing a significant portion of manufacturing and service industries, and thousands of jobs lost), and the continuous decline in the economy. Additionally, migration was fuelled by the repeated violent elections, and Operation Murambatsvina (and other continued displacements to date)

Migration in Southern Africa
Previous mass migrations in the region had mainly been caused by war and conflicts. This meant that most of the migrants were refugees fleeing from their home countries to seek refuge in neighbouring countries from political, social and economic challenges caused by conflict.

For example, during the Mozambican civil war, it was estimated that two million had become refugees (mostly in Malawi). In Zimbabwe a significant number of Mozambiquans worked in farms and mines, but the spirit of “Ubuntu” which exists amongst many Africans allowed the embracing of the migrants and co-existence was the norm. Prejudices could be found in the derogatory names given to the refugees, but these never turned to violence.

The migration for economic reasons of the past decades is the transnational system of labour migration otherwise known as Wenela. Both Zimbabwe and South Africa were the major beneficiaries of labour reserves characterised by a combination of great mineral wealth, commercial agriculture and chronic labour shortages. Since then, Zimbabwe has remained a permanent source of cheap proletariat labour for the South African economy depending on the push and pull factors of It is estimated, that over three million Zimbabweans are migrants in different countries but mainly in South Africa where estimates indicate that since 2015, over a million Zimbabweans have involuntarily fled to South Africa mainly “to look for jobs”, but significant numbers would also fit the description of “refugee” due to the political violence.

According to United Nations data Zimbabweans constitute 24% of all foreign immigrants in South Africa. Zimbabweans are therefore the largest foreign population group in South Africa. Attitudinal studies in the informal sector in Cape Town indicate that Zimbos are also the most disliked nationality amongst surveyed people. So do spare a thought for the millions of Zimbabweans who daily suffer harassment and targeted violence sometimes culminating in open and typical zimbophobic violence and hostility as is currently happening right now.

To be continued next week.

  • Zhou is a human rights activist. These weekly New Horizon articles, published in the Zimbabwe Independent, are co-ordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance and Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — kadenge.zes@gmail.com or mobile: +263 772 382 852.

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