South Africa gives Zimbabweans a haven, but at what cost?

//This the third in the series on the impact of the Zimbabwean meltdown on its neighbours, and focuses on South Africa//

The steadily lengthening list of Zimbabwe's woes over the past five years has driven many of its people to South Africa, with the region's richest economy, to find a market for their skills and labour by legal or illegal means.

South Africa, "more than any other country in the region, has borne the brunt of Zimbabwe's collapse," commented Selvan Chetty, of the Solidarity Peace Trust, a faith-based rights NGO working with Zimbabwean refugees. According to the Trust, their affiliate organisations process at least 50 new Zimbabwean arrivals every day. "There must be an estimated 2.5 [million] to three million Zimbabweans in South Africa," said Chetty.

Zimbabwe's economy began to nose-dive after the government instituted the fast-track land reform programme in 2000, which grounded its largely agriculture-based economy. Once the region's biggest producer of maize, Zimbabwe now has to import this staple food. The economic slump was compounded by a shortage of foreign currency and a high inflation - currently at 1,042 percent - putting essentials beyond the reach of ordinary Zimbabweans.

Dianna Games, a researcher with the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA), said unlike other countries in the region, to which some Zimbabwean businesses have chosen to relocate, South Africa has largely attracted skilled people, like accountants and teachers.

But at least twice the number of low-skilled migrants, who are popular as cheap labour because they are prepared to do odd jobs for as little as US$5 a day, and sometimes less, have entered the country, often illegally. "It has had a tremendous impact on the local job market in South Africa, besides the fact that the Zimbabweans are being exploited," said Chetty.

Many Zimbabweans risk life and limb to slip through the security cordon on either side of the fence and cross the crocodile-infested Limpopo river that marks the border at Musina in northern South Africa, motivated by the need to find jobs to feed their families and better lives for themselves.

Samuel Moyo, 22, who left Zimbabwe in 2003, goes home once a year with clothes and food for his siblings and grandmother in the southern province of Masvingo. "I try to send money when I can, through people I know going back home," said Moyo, who works as a gardener for about US$150 a month. An estimated $300 million a month is remitted to Zimbabwe by nationals in the diaspora, 98 percent of it via unofficial channels, according to a survey by the Trust.

Because Moyo is undocumented, he has to use touts and bribes to cross the border. He claimed he had twice been robbed and beaten by authorities on either side of the border.

Job placement in South Africa has become a lucrative business in Zimbabwe. "People are forced to sell their belongings by touts, who promise them jobs on the other side [of the Limpopo River], which often never materialise and the migrants end up destitute in the streets of our cities," said Chetty.

Professionals are better off, but only marginally so. Zimbabwean teachers are being employed by private education institutions for less than $90 a month, far below the stipulated minimum wage of at least $300 a month, he added. The Trust has at least 300 such teachers in its database and plans to organise them to fight for their rights.

Many professionals, like nurses, do not find jobs and often end up begging on the streets, according to the Trust. "They prefer begging here than life back in Zimbabwe, which is hell on earth," commented Chetty.

Tendai Mavhube and her husband came to South Africa in 2004. Both are graduates but have not able to find jobs that suit their qualifications and are working as waiters in a Johannesburg restaurant. "This is still better - on a good night we can make $30 in tips between us."

At the upper end of the labour market, accountants and academics are employed for much better salaries, but are reluctant to talk about their status. A study commissioned by the UN Development Programme on the brain drain in Zimbabwe found that "the majority of diaspora Zimbabweans there [in South Africa] had changed their citizenship ... Many Zimbabweans readily mix in with the South Africans because of the similarity of last names. Our view ... is that there are probably more diaspora Zimbabweans in South Africa than in the UK".

According to economist Mike Schussler, there are a small number of Zimbabwean farmers in South Africa, some of whom have opted to invest in other businesses.

Tony Hawkins, a professor at the Graduate School of Management of the University of Zimbabwe, recently said that besides benefiting from Zimbabwean skills, South Africa has managed to corner Zimbabwe's share of exports in various sectors.

SAIIA's Games pointed out that factory production in Zimbabwe has fallen by 45.6 percent since 1998, and manufacturing levels are at their lowest since 1971. "But it is difficult to quantify how much a share of Zimbabwe's market has been taken over by South Africa, which is essentially taking control of trade across the continent."

There is a significant South African business presence in Zimbabwe. About 27 of the largest South African listed companies have operations there, a number of which are also listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange. Some of them are its top performers, noted Games in a new research paper, 'A Nation in Turmoil: The Experience of South African firms doing business in Zimbabwe'.

Schussler said rather than benefiting from Zimbabwe's collapse, the region - including South Africa - has suffered. "Foreign investors often look at the stability of the region, rather than individual countries."

A report commissioned in 2003 by the Zimbabwe Research Initiative, a non-profit thinktank run by South Africans and Zimbabweans, stated that Zimbabwe's crisis had cost the region about $2.5 billion in investments since 2000, and had shaved around 1.3 percent off South Africa's Gross Domestic Product.

Zimbabwe's ailing parastatals have incurred large debts in South Africa. At the end of 2002, an estimated $8.9 million was owed to Telkom, South Africa's telecommunications utility; $11.9 million to Eskom, the state electricity supplier; $11.2 million to the Reserve Bank; $8.2 million to Transnet, the state-run transport company; more than $11.2 million to the fuel sector, and about $17.9 million to other companies, according to SAIIA.

The influx of Zimbabweans is putting tremendous pressure on South Africa's already high unemployment rate - officially around 27 percent, but according to many analysts closer to 40 percent - adding to the xenophobia that accuses migrants of increasing crime, stealing local jobs, houses, women and children's places in schools. South Africa's policy of 'quiet diplomacy' to resolve the economic and political crises in Zimbabwe has borne no fruit.

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