Today: April 11, 2024

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Zimbabweans are becoming strangers in their motherland


Zimbabweans are subject to disdain in South Africa both officially and unofficially, but did you know they’re actually part of the same DNA pool?
It doesn’t take a high-profile African historian to expose the obvious fact that Southern Africans – particularly Zambians, Malawians, South Africans and Zimbabweans – are of intertwined provenance.
This goes back not only to a shared colonial past entrenched in British imperialism, but also the disintegration of the great Zulu nation in the 1820s, when it spilled across all ‘borders’ of what the late jazz singer Hugh Masekela christened ‘the hinterland’.
Historically intertwined
It is no surprise to find Zulu, Venda, Shangani, Ndebele, Tonga, Xhosa and Setswana languages spread across the Limpopo and Zambezi River valleys, though in moderately different dialects.
Moreover, when the shackles of apartheid tightened on black South Africans in the 1960s, the Walter Sisulu-Nelson Mandela resistance movement laid its foundations across the very same borders, as black South African refugees and fighters set their havens as far afield as Zambia and Tanzania, and in between.
By the early 1980s, when all other Southern African countries had reclaimed majority rule, only South Africa remained with its citizens scattered across the hinterland: to be precise, in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia.
The swan song of the ‘Frontline States’ was loud, as it was prominently chorused by independent neighbours to pressure the white South African government into submitting to the tide of black majority rule.
When that eventually happened, South Africa opened the floodgates to emigrants, most of whom had already established a base as cheap mine labour from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Malawi.
Critical skills
It is therefore unpalatable to hear so much hue and cry about ‘Zimbabwean aliens’ in South Africa, when in fact this demographic dates back to the Tshaka Zulu-triggered 1822 Mfecane.
The Zimbabwean emigration issue is not just topical for its social and economic contexts, but also political. In more ways than one, Zimbabweans ail from self-inflicted wounds.
For almost two decades, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) has spectacularly failed to instigate conditions conducive to a vibrant, self-sustaining economy.
Over two decades, the country has experienced so much economic and political turmoil that there are an estimated three million Zimbabwean political and economic ‘refugees’ currently nestled in South Africa.
Tragically, very few of these are documented; thousands have illegally crossed the borders in search of menial jobs in the farming, mining, retail, tourism and household sectors.
On the other hand, South African liberator the African National Congress (ANC ) is fingered by voters for being too beholden to the country’s northern neighbours, therefore allowing emigrants to take up jobs that ordinary unskilled South Africans could lay claim to.
This was especially the case in 2009, when the Dispensation of Zimbabweans Project (DZP) legitimised Zimbabweans fleeing from the late Robert Mugabe-created economic and political crisis.
This ‘benevolence’ coincided with the FIFA World Cup 2010, which required critical skills that were lacking, thus inadvertently making asylum seekers comfortable, or more accurately, tolerated.
Xenophobia, again
However, the tide has now turned and tensions have never been so high. Reports of xenophobic attacks against undocumented black immigrants are common, especially in poor townships like Soweto, Alexandra and Khayelitsha.
For obvious reasons, hatred has been targeted mostly at black Zimbabweans, who suffer from routine mob justice and accusations of perpetrating violent crimes.
Moreover, even legitimate cross-border truck drivers have had their vehicles robbed, burned or banned by marauding organised crime gangs claiming to ‘protect South African jobs from illegal foreigners’.
It is no surprise, therefore, that as South Africa slides into election 2024 mode, the issue of illegal immigrants will assume a higher decibel of political significance.

Top of the agenda is the subject of Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP), which has attracted litigation from the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF): the human-rights defender accuses the Department of Home Affairs of being heavy-handed in threatening to terminate or not extend ZEPs.
Although there are several other groups formed by ‘legit’ Zimbabweans to fight for employment and domicile rights, HSF has played a crucial role in having all terminations or suspensions of ZEPs reversed on the basis of ‘unconstitutionality’.
Back home in Zimbabwe, even the so-called ‘new dispensation’ of President Emmerson Mnangagwa continues blundering through human rights violations and distorted economic policies worsened by high-level corruption.
The local Zimbabwean dollar has no reserve value, with the retail sector preferring rand or United States dollars. Both Zimbabwe Statistics (ZimStats) and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe acknowledge that remittances from the Zimbabwe diaspora are calibrated in billions of US dollars.
This is a tacit admission that funds from South African-based immigrants play a key role in the economy, yet this counts for nothing for jobless locals.
It’s the election, stupid
There is a credible argument that ZEPs and the Zimbabwean Special Permit (ZSP) are a privilege limited to fewer than 200,000 Zimbabwean workers and students. When this is compared to the three million other unregistered Zimbabweans in South Africa, one wonders why entities like vigilante organisation Dudula and politicians such as Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba are making a fuss about permits.
It is populist symbolism and a desire for acceptance with an eye on the 2024 election.
The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) is ambivalent, knowing too well how Zimbabweans play a key role in industry, farming and mining.
On the other hand, Julius Malema has emerged guns blazing in defence of all black African immigrants. Malema’s stance benefited greatly from the confused policy positions of home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who eventually lost his bid to terminate ZEPs this year on the basis of lacking proper consultation.
For its part, the Mnangagwa regime blurts out feeble attempts to portray itself as capable of absorbing deported immigrants from South Africa.
Opposition parties in Zimbabwe accuse their government of posturing, especially when millions of unemployed graduates already roam the streets. The Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) aspiring president Nelson Chamisa recently “toured” South Africa, urging fellow Zimbabweans to return home – not to seek employment, but to help vote out Zanu-PF on 23 August 2023.
Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has also pledged to provide free transport for Zimbabweans willing to cast their vote as a way of ‘correcting the situation in your home country’.
While millions of Zimbabweans are still treated as strangers in their motherland, their immigration status is, for now, safe.

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