by Constance Manika
- Zimbabwe -
I am the first to graduate in my immediate family, she was the second. I was full of high expectations for my sister; and even though I do not have one, I believed that because of the field she had chosen, she would secure a high-paying job and have a very bright future.
On October 23rd, I sent my young sister Farai off to the Republic of South Africa (RSA) to seek employment. In 2005 she graduated from the University of Zimbabwe with a BSc Honors in Information Technology, and yet she never managed to find any paid employment in this field (save for a one-year unpaid industrial internship she completed as part of her four-year training).
But of course the policies of our despotic leader, Robert Mugabe, meant there would be a different future in store for her. With unemployment levels at a staggering 80 percent (although the government continues to insist preposterously that unemployment is at 9 percent) my sister's future was doomed even before she got her degree.
For two years my sister failed to get a job in her field; she was forced into the education sector, and even then she only got work as a "relief or temporary" teacher in the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education. She could barely make ends meet on that very meager salary.
Farai taught English Language and Literature to five classes, then every other day she trudged back home with piles and piles of workbooks to mark during the night. She was overworked and underpaid and barely had time for her three year old daughter.
As the days passed by, her disappointment at apparently having wasted four years at university on a degree that she would never be able to use was quite evident. She rarely spoke or laughed and was always angry, snapping at everything and everyone; her young daughter bore the brunt of her frustration. My mother and I were afraid that she would slip into a depression and so we tried to cheer her up whenever we could, but it hardly ever worked.
Then one day in April of this year, she came home from work unusually happy with some "good news”. She told us that she had been talking to "someone" who knew "someone" who knew "some people" who could help her leave the country even without a passport and get a job in South Africa. My mother and I exchanged worried looks; it all sounded very dubious to us.
For starters, these "someones" she was talking about had no names, and I wondered how sincere their motivation to help my sister was. She had been told that these "facilitators" could ensure a safe border crossing into South Africa for a fee of R1000 (about $142 USD) using their connections in the immigration department.
I was very afraid that the "someones” she was talking about could be human traffickers preying on desperate professionals trying to escape the political and economic problems in our country. I warned Farai that she could find herself in trouble in a foreign country with no proper travel documents being used a sex worker by these "someones.” We had heard and read about such things in various news reports far too often. I told her that as an educated person, she ought to know better.
But my sister wouldn't hear any of this. We argued for a very long time, but she was still determined to leave the country for greener pastures.
She had been told by her “suitors” that the IT industry in South Africa was very lucrative and that she could earn a salary of about R20,000 (about $3,000 USD) per month. I found it very hard to believe, but as I said, my sister was excited and unstoppable.
After a heated argument, we realized we couldn't stop her and agreed to let her go, on the condition that she would at least obtain a passport. This was our way of indirectly preventing her from venturing into the unknown, because we knew that the Registrar General's (RG's) Office was in a shambles. There was and still is a serious passport backlog.Day in and day out, hundreds of desperate young professionals seeking to escape the country’s high unemployment rates and poverty queue up at the RG's office as early as 5am. However, this is not a guarantee that they will get a passport. Some are told to come back and collect their passports in six months, while others are told to come back in nine months, ten, or a year. But even after this waiting period, there is still no guarantee that the travel document will be ready.
The RG's office has been under strict instructions from Mugabe's government not to let young professionals leave the country since they realized how serious the “brain drain” in the country was getting. We all know that the "backlog" in this department has been deliberately created to stop the exodus of young people, but nonetheless, it hasn't worked.
After coming up with the passport scheme, my mother and I were sure that we had exorcised the “I want to leave the country" demon in my sister.
For a whole week my determined sister woke up as early as 4am to be one of the first people in the passport queue, but each time she failed to make the cut: only the first 100 peoples’ passport forms were taken daily for processing.
After that week went by we thought to ourselves, “Soon she will give up and forget about this nonsense,” but she took us by surprise when one day she told us that she was actually going to sleep at the passport office in order to be first in the queue! Many other people were doing this, she explained. We didn't stop her, and she left home around 8pm one Monday evening with a small blanket.
The next day she came home jubilant, she had made it to first 100 and had been asked to collect her passport in 3 months’ time - in July.
July came - no passport. August came - no passport. September and then October came and still there was nothing. For my sister, this was the last straw. She soon announced that she was leaving for RSA, passport or not. As we all sat trying to stomaching this news, she quickly added that this time there was no room for any more negotiation!
So on October 23, 2007 I bade farewell to my little sister. We were all very sad and worried, as well as angry at the system that had made my sister and so many other young people this desperate.
But this experience, having someone close to me have to cross the border illegally, really opened my eyes. It made me appreciate how serious the issue of unemployment is in our country.Forget about the well-written reports on glossy paper by migration experts citing statistics of how many people are leaving the country. The emotional trauma my sister went through trying to get a passport and then deciding to leave the country illegally (plus what we went through as a family) is the human side of the story that these glossy reports can never show. The reality is that as the economic crisis continues here, many young professionals are leaving the country, no matter what the cost. This experience left me thoroughly troubled, but it also opened my eyes wide.
Waiting months for a passport or a visa to leave the country is a luxury many desperate young professionals just cannot afford. A South African visa costs about R2000 (about $285 USD) in travelers checks and though many people cannot raise the money, it hasn't stopped any of them from border jumping.
Thousands of Zimbabweans are already illegally living overseas, with an estimated 3.5 million working and residing in neighboring RSA and Botswana alone, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It also estimated that 25 percent of youths deported from RSA and Botswana had unsuccessfully applied for Zimbabwean passports before, while some 28 percent of that group stated that the high cost of visas had deterred them from even applying for one.
Others, like my sister can afford to "jump the border" after paying a certain fee to bus drivers and conductors who ply the routes of the countries into which they want to escape. Because these facilitators have been working these routes for years, they now have connections in immigration whom they pay off in order to smuggle passengers. All a person needs to do is to just sit in the bus while these drivers or conductors do the work. This is a much safer way of border jumping.
Then there are other Zimbabweans who can't afford to pay these facilitators and opt to take the risk of literally jumping the border fence.
Those who want to cross over into RSA have to cross the Limpopo River (which separates Zimbabwe and RSA) and run the risk of being eaten by crocodiles or drowning. They also risk being caught by border patrol officers and being deported.
According to the IOM, illegal immigrants crossing over into RSA through the Limpopo River usually get dropped off on the Zimbabwe bank of the river. Once there, the illegal immigrants get to the no man's land and use a rope tied to the tiers of the bridge to lower themselves to the RSA banks of the river.
They are then picked up by transport operators who have realized that these illegal immigrants are big business. They are taken to the heart of RSA but the risks of being caught and deported are very high.
IOM estimates that an estimated 17,500 illegal migrants are deported every month from neighboring RSA and Botswana.
A support center was set up at the Zimbabwe-RSA border post town of Beitbridge by the IOM to help deported Zimbabweans. Thousands have benefited by receiving medication and traveling money. About 1,450 unaccompanied deported children have received assistance at the center after being deported.
This is how desperate the situation is getting by the day as Mugabe continues to destroy the economy. As of September, inflation is now at more than 8,000 percent. The poverty is becoming sickening.
As for my sister Farai, she arrived safely in RSA, but she is still looking for a job. My stomach tightens each time I hear news that some more Zimbabweans have been deported. Almost immediately, I pick up the phone to check if she is well.
You have no idea of the amount of relief that I feel each time she answers, “hallo.”
Can this really be considered any kind of life?
About the Author
Constance Manika is a journalist who works for the independent press in Zimbabwe. She writes under this pseudonym to escape prosecution from a government whose onslaught and level of intolerance to journalists in the independent press is well documented.
In Meltdown in Zimbabwe, an exclusive and ongoing series at The WIP, Constance provides continued on-the-ground reporting from her embattled country where Zimbabweans struggle daily for democracy, economic sustainability and human rights.