SA’s own wave of exiles
AFRESH wave of reluctant economic exiles from across the Limpopo River now call South Africa home, and burrowed deep within a five-kilometre radius of one nondescript shopping mall situated in the heart of Gauteng stands an unpleasant demonstration of radical economic empowerment in Zimbabwe gone wrong.
I drive along Harry Galaun Drive, near Midway Mews Shopping Mall, on a Saturday morning, hoping to get a long hard look at the job seekers from Zimbabwe who regularly promote their services at the shopping centre.
Before I turn into the road that leads to the mall, I immediately see scores of potential labourers milling around in the sunshine on either side of the narrow street, only a few metres away from the mall’s gated entrance.
The Zimbabwean women appear rather anxious and pretty desperate. In the past, aspiring domestic workers placed ads in the Midrand Reporter, a local paper, or stuck notices of availability next to the public board at the FNB ATM, after which they would wait for people to call them. However, as more and more asylum seekers from Zimbabwe settled in the nearby areas the competition for scarce jobs stiffened, and the direct approach to seeking work became incredibly popular. I drive past the ladies leisurely, but do not make eye contact with anyone. The women stand and watch an endless trickle of cars slow down before the speed hump and attempt to gain attention through raising cardboard signs: each will do household chores for an agreed fee.
The largely emotionless and motionless mob of women remain on the crowded kerb until late in the afternoon, holding onto the improbable hope a paying customer will appear from the multitudes of moneyed residents who enter the mall complex incessantly. While the ladies wait in highly contemplative mood for people to stop and make inquiries, a subdued chorus of chitterchatter echoes but barely rivals the roaring sounds of vehicles parking next to the fuel pumps at the Engen fuel station, a stone’s throw from the overcrowded roadside.
Engen customers enter the convenience store and fill up and leave the station within a few minutes – but the almost lifeless women are left behind, chillingly silent and clearly disqualified from the profitable margins of mainstream economic activity and social life since mall security officers will not allow the women to canvass for jobs near the busiest section of the mall: the entrance to a Pick n Pay supermarket.
I meet more Zimbabwean ladies assembled outside Blue Hills Shopping Centre nearly five kilometres to the north, all willing to work for about R200 per day. While on my way back to Midway Mews Mall, I encounter another lot of job hunters awaiting a much needed source of income: a small group of roadside electricians and mechanics, who claim they can fix all things electrical and mechanical, like fridges, stoves and electric gates and garages.
Near the apparently multi-talented specialists there are on-the-street vendors from Zimbabwe selling an assortment of fruits, pirated videos, cheap plastic devices and counterfeit replica kits at the corner of New Road and Harry Galaun Drive.
Also present at this traffic stop are two young women who are dressed in bright orange garb and hats. The ladies hand out leaflets for a R499 car service deal in a rather sluggish and unenthusiastic manner whenever I see them at work. To the left hand side of this busy stop, there is a popular family restaurant. There, Zimbabwean waiters work for tips and a small percentagebased commission.
I move on. I park along Church Street and cross the busy road and enter Midrand Hyper Meat & Chicken, a budget supermarket and butchery. I shop and the not-so-customerfriendly ladies who work at the tills are all Zimbabweans. The man who helps me carry my purchases to my car immigrated to South Africa from the DRC. It is just another fine day in a foreign paradise for reluctant economic exiles from Zimbabwe and Africa.
The positive aspect is: diligent and trustworthy migrants often find honest paid work. However, the overall outlook remains negative: there will undoubtedly be another and perhaps much bigger wave of unexcited exiles reaching these shores soon as parliamentary and presidential elections in Zimbabwe and DRC draw closer.
So, the struggle for dear life will continue for the people on the kerb.
• Tafi Mhaka works in the communications industry in Johannesburg. He holds a BA honours degree from the University of Cape Town