Malawian street vendor Rajab Angry. LIMPING from one crisis to another.
That is the daily struggle some migrants who have trekked to Pietermaritzburg for better lives, say they are faced with, having little to hold onto except their own resilience and the will to survive.
They undertake this completely different journey for the dream of a better life. Once they get to South Africa — often entering the country illegally — they are confronted with the realities of how difficult it is to be an immigrant in a country that is sometimes unwelcoming to foreigners.
According to Statistics South Africa, there are 2,2 million legal immigrants and close to one million undocumented foreign nationals in the country.
Gauteng has the highest proportion of foreign-born workers, numbering about eight percent of the working population, followed by Limpopo and Mpumalanga at four percent, while in the North West and Western Cape the figure stands at three percent, and in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape, at one percent.
In Pietermaritzburg, the majority are from Malawi, Ethopia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, although other nations like Kenya and Nigeria are also represented. All hope to find a job that will allow them to send money back to their families or bring their relatives into the country.
Kotelo Nadia Mpiana (25) was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and moved to South Africa at a very young age.
Her family lived in Johannesburg and later moved to Pietermaritzburg in search of a place to call home. She did most of her schooling in Pietermaritzburg, from high school right through to her civil engineering studies at the Msunduzi Tvet College.
She told Weekend Witness that going back to the DRC was not an option.
“When I think of going home, the image of people being killed by rebels flashes back. My family is not going back there, never. I would rather die here,” said Mpiana, a hairdresser and nail technician in Timber Street.
Mpiana said most foreign nationals who do not want to be repatriated or reintegrated back into their communities, seek refuge in rundown blocks of flats in central Pietermaritzburg.
Timber Street is lined with hair salons, tuck shops, clothing shops and cellphone repair shops owned by foreign nationals.
“My sister, things are bad for us and we don’t know who to turn to for help. We are limping from one crisis to the next,” said Mpiana, while pasting artificial nails on a client.
My current work permit has to be renewed every six months. It’s like Home Affairs creates a barrier for us to be able to get proper employment. Even with a civil engineering qualification, I don’t think I would be able to get a secure job.
Nigerian businessperson Paul Osagie.
She said that while she managed to finish her matric and enrolled at a Tvet for a civil engineering diploma, she was forced to drop out when she could no longer afford to pay her tuition fees.
“It’s very hard to get a bursary. I tried to apply for funding, but I was told that I did not qualify because of my foreign status. I have to work full time to save up money to go back to school next year.”
Mpiana said the biggest challenge has been getting proper documentation to be able to secure permanent employment.
“My current work permit has to be renewed every six months. It’s like Home Affairs creates a barrier for us to be able to get proper employment. Even with a civil engineering qualification, I don’t think I would be able to get a secure job.”
Mpiana said while her family had adjusted to life away from home, starting afresh was difficult.
“It was very difficult. When we arrived I thought that French was spoken everywhere; no one could understand or utter a word of French here. I had to talk loudly and use more descriptions to piece conversations together,” she said.
Paul Osagie (40), the owner of popular cosmetics and hair extensions shop, Buka T’s, said not having proper local identification, and business regulations that seem designed to stifle rather than encourage entrepreneurship, are just two of the myriad problems encountered by migrant business people.
And then there is discrimination. And the mistrust. And the violence.
“I employ about 25 people and the majority of them are South Africans. I make money and invest it here,” said Osagie, who has been in South Africa for the past 23 years.
He said: “Although I am a permanent resident of South Africa with a South African ID, I don’t feel part of South Africa. I am reminded at every juncture that this is not my home and will never be my home.”
He said South Africans need to integrate “foreigners” into local systems and not make them feel as if they do not belong, or do not deserve to work with or employ South Africans.
Osagie said he moved to the country because he always grew up with a “travellers’” mentality and had told himself that he wasn’t going to live in Nigeria forever. “I was a policeman in Nigeria but I have always believed that travelling is part of learning, which is why I decided to move to South Africa.”
Osagie added that he has always had a problem with break-ins at his shop and he believes this was because he is a foreigner here. “I have loved being in South Africa and although the level of crime is worrying, I will not allow this to chase me away,” he vowed.
“It’s tougher for men. Some South African men despise us. When we are not being accused of stealing their women, we are called [a pejorative name for foreigners]. It’s tough but I just ignore it and move on. If you fight, you get killed.”
He added that South Africa is a democratic country where people are free, which is why he left Nigeria. CONTINUED ON PAGE 7