Tendai Takawarasha spends his days hawking sunglasses and phone chargers to motorists at traffic lights in an affluent neighborhood of Johannesburg.
For him, and many of the estimated 1.5 million mainly undocumented Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa, that’s better than going home, where President Robert Mugabe won a July 31 election that Takawarasha and many immigrants expected him to lose. Zimbabwe’s economic prospects are dimming since Mugabe, 89, followed his vote victory with threats to seize control of mines and banks from foreign and white investors and give them to black citizens and the government.
“Go back for what? Can you find me one person who believes Zimbabwe won’t go back into another economic crisis?” Takawarasha, 30, said in an interview in Diepsloot, a shantytown where he lives on the outskirts of South Africa’s largest city. “We’re like the Mexicans in America, just looking for a better life.”
Zimbabweans started flooding over the South African border after Mugabe began seizing white-owned commercial farms in 2000 for redistribution to black citizens who grow food mainly for their own consumption. This started an economic collapse that cut the size of Zimbabwe’s economy by two-fifths in eight years and pushed inflation to an International Monetary Fund estimate of 500 billion percent.
While some of the migrants stand in line for as long as eight hours at the border town of Beitbridge before bribing their way into South Africa, many walk miles from the town down the Limpopo River, which divides the two countries, before illegally crossing the sandy river bed at night. They then face a trek through dense scrub to the nearest South African town of Musina. En route they must evade armed gangs that prey on immigrants, army patrols and wild animals including lions and elephants.
“One of the women with us was raped by seven men and we were all robbed,” Jonasi Mavhaire, a university-educated 22-year-old wearing scuffed jeans, said in an interview in Musina. “They let us go with only the clothes we were wearing.”
Musina has scores of homeless Zimbabwean children trying to make their way to their families.
“I’ve been here for three weeks collecting money to go to Johannesburg to find relatives,” said Hazvinei Gumbo, a 12-year-old orphan, who wore a torn red dress over her dusty skin as she sat on the sidewalk by a gas station begging passersby for funds and food.
The grimy town serves as the gateway to the rest of Africa for South African trucking companies ferrying goods from the port of Durban. Its streets now throng with people speaking Zimbabwe’s main Shona language, while police signs warn motorists not to stop because of the high crime levels.
Some immigrants stay in Medecins Sans Frontieres-run camps in Musina while they apply for asylum documentation, a process that can take weeks. Others sleep outdoors or find accommodation in a nearby township.
After a disputed election in 2008, the 15-nation Southern African Development Community forced Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party into a coalition with Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. The MDC held economic ministries, Mugabe retained control of security portfolios, and the economy expanded for four consecutive years.
Now Mugabe and his party are back in control of economic policy after he beat Tsvangirai in the July elections. He won 61 percent of the vote, and his party captured a two-thirds majority in parliament.
“The economy is going to go down the drain,” Tonderai Tambudzika, a 32-year-old Zimbabwean who has no work, said in Diepsloot. “Already Mugabe has started shouting about taking the mines and banks, which means they will collapse, just like the farms.”
Mugabe’s programs may cause a return to economic instability, said John Robertson, an independent economist in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Already mining companies such as Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd. have agreed to cede stakes while banks including units of Barclays Plc and Standard Chartered Plc are in talks with the government.
The plans “they’re going to implement are the very same policies that led to the first economic crisis,” he said in an interview. “It’s going to be very bad for us.”
Zimbabwe’s benchmark stock index has declined 18 percent since Mugabe’s victory, falling 11 percent on Aug. 5, the first trading day after the results were announced.
Johannesburg’s University of The Witwatersrand has estimated the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa at 1.5 million, or more than a 10th of Zimbabwe’s population.
No one knows the exact number, Brian Hanekom, director of People Against Suffering, Oppression & Poverty, a non-profit group that assists undocumented migrants in South Africa, said in an interview from Cape Town.
South Africa, which has an economy 38 times the size of Zimbabwe’s and a population almost five times as big, offers the promise of work for the immigrants, many of whom speak better English than most South Africans and have a superior education.
Zimbabwe ranked 50th out of a survey of 144 countries in terms of the quality of its math and science education while South Africa ranked 143rd, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2012-13.
With an unemployment rate of 25.6 percent and competition for housing and services in the poorest areas, South Africa has seen resentment against foreigners erupt periodically in violence. In 2008 more than 50 foreigners were killed in a spate of rioting, and the army was deployed in townships for the first time since the end of apartheid.
Unemployment in Zimbabwe is about 70 percent, and opposition supporters often face the threat of political violence. The World Food Programme said on Sept. 3 that a quarter of the country’s rural population will need food aid next year, the highest number since 2009.
Once in Johannesburg, or other major South African cities, Zimbabweans take jobs ranging from domestic servants in affluent suburbs to electricians; many work illegally.
Most live in areas like Diepsloot, a squalid collection of shacks adjacent to Dainfern, one of Johannesburg’s most exclusive gated communities. Some send a large proportion of their earnings back home to support the children and elderly who have remained behind. They travel to work in crowded minibuses, the most common form of mass transport in South Africa, and are preyed upon by criminals and corrupt police officers, who take advantage of their lack of documentation to demand bribes.
In 2010 South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs oversaw an amnesty program that allowed Zimbabweans in the country with valid passports and proof of employment, a viable business plan or enrollment in a recognized educational institution to apply to stay for as long as four years. About 275,000 applied, according to the department.
“We worked with Zimbabwean organizations here in South Africa to encourage all Zimbabweans illegally in the country to come forward,” Ronnie Mamoepa, a spokesman for South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs said in a Sept. 16 interview. “It isn’t possible to say how many are here illegally now.”
While the permits are renewable, there are reports that some requests have been turned down, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, head of the Refugees and Migrant Rights Program for Johannesburg-based Lawyers for Human Rights, said in an interview. Most will expire at the end of 2014, she said.
Between 200 and 300 Zimbabweans working illegally in South Africa are deported each day, with 28,315 being sent back in the first six months of this year, Charles Gwede, Zimbabwe’s chief immigration officer in Beitbridge, said in a Sept. 16 interview.
Few return to Zimbabwe voluntarily.
Henry Munetsi, a 25-year-old university graduate who waits on tables in Johannesburg’s financial center, went back home to Zimbabwe for the election, “but I think that was my last visit,” he said. “The economy cannot survive.”