Xenophobia bad, Mugabe's retribution worse

Sheila Ndlovu was sweating profusely as she struggled with two bulging bags at the bus station in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, while trying to get her three young children safely onto the coach bound for Johannesburg, South Africa.

Finally settled, bags stowed and offspring seated, she breathed a sigh of relief. “This is it, I have made up my mind to go and join my husband, who works in South Africa. I have been sitting on the fence all along, then hoping the elections would usher in a new government, but now I have to provide a decent life for our children in South Africa."

Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won the 29 March election, but it took weeks, amid mounting post-voting violence, before the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission finally broke its silence and ordered a second poll for the presidential ballot.

Ndlovu, an accountant, said she had little faith in a democratic solution to the country's political crisis, in which President Robert Mugabe and his supporters castigate the opposition as agents of imperialism who have hoodwinked the Zimbabwean people.

Her husband, who is an engineer, found work two years ago in South Africa's booming construction industry, buoyed by the frenzy of preparing for the 2010 World Cup. She stayed behind to look after the children, but with Zimbabwe's economy disintegrating, squeezed by shortages and an inflation rate that has officially reached 365,000 percent, Ndlovu is now finally ready to join the exodus of professionals. 

“It no longer makes sense to go to work in Zimbabwe because the costs of transport, food and accommodation have gone beyond the reach of many," she told IRIN. "I am only too relieved to go to a country without food, water and fuel shortages."

Ndlovu and her husband have joined the more than three million Zimbabweans - at least a quarter of the population - who have left the country to seek a better life. She said many of her friends, who had resisted quitting, had now taken a similar decision; the government's apparent determination to cling to power being the final straw.

She was well aware of the rising tide of xenophobia in South Africa, underlined by the explosion of murderous violence over the past ten days that has targeted foreigners in Johannesburg, many of them Zimbabwean, but was not deterred.

"The threats of xenophobic attacks pose less danger than the threats of persistent hunger, political violence and shortages of just about everything [in Zimbabwe]," was her wry comment. "As professionals, I am sure we can manoeuvre away from such attacks by living in certain [more upmarket] places. I would obviously not go and live in the townships because we would be sitting ducks."

Scorched earth

Journalist Ivan Musiiwa, travelling on the same bus, is among scores of journalists who have been persecuted by the government for allegedly supporting the MDC. In 2006 he won a scholarship to study journalism at a South African university, but kept postponing taking up his place.

“I want to live in my country, that's why I've been delaying my departure for South Africa. But the situation appears to be getting worse, especially with the escalation of political violence. Journalists are no longer safe. Despite the upsurge in xenophobic attacks in South Africa, I am going to improve my knowledge by doing more studies, while I watch political developments in my country from the sidelines.”

Musiiwa is not taking any chances with the welfare of his wife and children. “I have spent a fortune in ensuring that my children and my wife have passports and visas for South Africa. As a journalist I have been around the country since the elections and I've seen for myself the scorched earth policies, in which houses and livestock have been burnt while people have been murdered, tortured," he told IRIN.

“People, especially known or perceived MDC activists and independent journalists, are being abducted and tortured or jailed. I don’t want my family to experience that,” he said.

Another professional, Sithandekile Dube, a university graduate and teacher at an upmarket government school, said she had been forced to flee to Harare from Mutoko, in northeastern Zimbabwe, because of the retribution being meted out by ruling party militia and soldiers.

“Teachers, most of whom were election officers, have become targets of political violence after they were accused of ‘rigging’ elections in favour of the MDC. Scores of teachers have fled from the countryside after they were threatened, attacked or had their homes set on fire.”

She told IRIN teachers were abandoning their posts across the country. “In the rural areas, [ruling party] ZANU-PF supporters regard teachers as enemies and suspect them of supporting the MDC. I have found a teaching post in South Africa and I have no hesitation in taking it up." Her husband, a civil servant, is expected to join her soon with their two children.

“It is unfortunate that because of political immaturity in my country I now have to take my skills to a foreign country, South Africa, when I would have wanted my fellow citizens to benefit from my knowledge,” Dube added.

The secretary general of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, Raymond Majongwe, told IRIN that many schools, especially in countryside, no longer had teachers. "Zimbabwean mathematics and science teachers are in demand in southern Africa and many have fled to South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland and Mozambique.”