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Khadija Sharife (2011) ‘It’s dangerous out there’ Immigrant survival tactics in dog-eat-dog South Africa. Eye on Civil Society : 1-3.

For millions of Southern Africans who crossed into South Africa as political refugees or in search of work, the risk of robbery, rape and extortion at the border is just the beginning of their problems. Exploited and scapegoated, most simply want to feed their children.

Looking more closely, their survival is inspiring.

Interviewees claim they traverse borders either through expensive organised syndicates, or via illegal routes where robbery and rape is common. ‘On many occasions, even before reaching the border, buses are stopped by the police and everyone is asked to produce a passport. Those who do not have would have to pay the requisite bribes,’ claims the source.

With the moratorium on deportations of Zimbabweans now over, and the majority of these immigrants still without official travel documents and asylum permits, the last resort is ‘bribing Home Affairs officials and police on the way,’ according to one of my Durban sources.

The influx of Zimbabwean migrants hoping to find work as manual labourers and domestic workers has lowered the cost of labour here, but these immigrants are themselves socioeconomic refugees. Complains one former school teacher, ‘By the time I left Zimbabwe, my monthly salary could not buy two litres of cooking oil.’

South African business is pleased. Trusted workers in restaurants, farms, construction and other projects are often asked to bring their friends to prospective employers. Road hawkers sell pirated CDs. Domestics are most often women, while males work as cleaners and gardeners for a similar wage. The influx of immigrants, however, means that jobs are hard to come by and wages cannot be negotiated upward.

While many South Africans express sympathy to me about the predicament of Zimbabweans and say they abhor xenophobic pogroms, it is common to hear the insult makwerekwere (the derogatory phrase used to describe immigrants), and hostility is often blatantly expressed. ‘See that one,’ said a local South Beach vendor, pointing at a Congolese car guard. ‘He is no better than a monkey, an animal.’ However, set against the backdrop of South Africa’s political economy, in which poor and working people are materially worse off today than during apartheid, such pathological xenophobia is simply one of many desperate and ruthless reactions to socio-economic stress.

As one former government official informs me, ‘The situation in squatter camps and townships - it is like a tinderbox - anything could set it off. People are desperate.’ There remain strong memories of the 2008 and 2010 xenophobic attacks, when faceless immigrants were murdered, burnt, beaten and driven out by enraged masses. Xenophobia lurks beneath the reality of daily life, penetrating and informing every choice, claim and opportunity.

Even the civil society uprisings called ‘service delivery protests’ occasionally get hijacked when local commercial operators take the opportunity to loot and burn shops set up by immigrants.

This became such a problem that last Wednesday, residents of Ramaphosa township physically defended Somalis and Pakistanis shopkeepers against thugs from the Greater Gauteng Business Forum, testifying that immigrants’ prices are lower and they pay their South African workers more than do the local spaza shops.

Conflict is also common over housing, as most immigrants are forced to live in dangerous conditions, most often in corrugated iron shacks, roasting in summer and freezing in winter. ‘The most common form of accommodation in these areas is shacks (wood or tin) that are filthy, crowded and very uncomfortable,’ says Tyanai Masiya, a Zimbabwean based in Cape Town.

‘Since most of us are unemployed, temporarily employed and underpaid, living in small crowded shacks becomes the only option. These shacks, made up of old and rusty zinc and rotten boards picked up at the dump sites, are the worst kinds of shelter for human beings.’

Immigrants unable to meet lease requirements - such as legal status, stable employment and funding for deposits - may pay as much as R400 per room monthly for accommodation costing South African citizens R150. Where immigrants cannot pay the bills, they are allowed to sleep (sometimes in shifts) four to a shack room at R150 - R200 per head.

Such pressure on scarce housing leaves local residents angry about the lack of affordable access, since government has not made meaningful progress in cutting the backlog. Immigrants were not aware of any legal or other recourse and feel helpless as they are subject to evictions and drastic rent increases without notice. ‘I am trapped,’ says a car guard working at South Beach. ‘There is nobody I can appeal too.’

Language, dress code and physical features identify immigrants, he says. ‘When the robbers are not very certain if one is an immigrant, they get one into a dialogue, for example, through just greeting him/her. From the response they can detect if one is an immigrant. Those who are fluent in local languages sometimes get spared.’

Police are allegedly reluctant to search for the attackers. According to one interviewee, ‘I suspect that these police get bribes from the robbers. Even if you tell them (the police) that you have seen your attackers somewhere, they will not go there. Yet you have taken a risk to go and report, because some who are seen reporting to the police are attacked again for reporting.’

According to multiple sources, immigrants in the Kraaifontein area have been repeatedly robbed and stabbed. Says one, ‘These people [attackers] do not give you time to surrender what you have, they just pounce on you and begin to stab you all over. It is up to you to ask for forgiveness and pledge to give them all you have. If they feel that you want to resist they can easily stab you to death even in broad daylight. It’s dangerous out here.’

Khadija Sharife is visiting scholar at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and southern Africa correspondent for The Africa Report.

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