Johannesburg - Robert* is an industrious entrepreneur trying to make a living in the sprawling metropolis that is Gauteng. He is an estate agent and recently quit a reputable firm in Vereeniging, citing racism as one of his concerns.
He increasingly grew frustrated when his colleagues and boss would regularly converse in Afrikaans, knowing full well that he could not understand a word. He says he knew his prospects at the agency would always be limited because he will never be one of the boys.
To supplement his income Robert is a gym and swimming instructor. He has quite a dedicated client base and he is determined to bust the myth that black men can’t swim! He thinks that he may have had a potential career in the pool at Olympic level but was derailed by having to flee the country of his birth following the political unrest and turbulence of 2008.
He arrived in South Africa penniless, with nothing but a rucksack and the hope to start a new life. He was a mere 22 years of age and could only speak his native Shona and English. He has since become fluent in Tswana, Zulu and has some patchy Afrikaans. When he is not selling houses or finding clients to rent them, he is in the pool teaching a crucial survival skill and often working on his own glistening physique.
He has very few friends and likes to keep to himself. It is a lesson he learnt immediately upon his arrival. South Africa was in the full throttle of the infamous xenophobic attacks of 2008 in which, and as people were being murdered, Thabo Mbeki sat brooding deciding whether the killings were mere acts of criminality or motivated by something darker. Robert figured the fewer the number of people who knew who he was and his origins, the safer he would be. Despite his attractiveness he repels any romantic advances and remains a loner.
Now after 13 years in the country he once again faces uncertainty. As a holder of the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP), he is unsure what the future holds for him when the special dispensation expires in December this year. He is part of the nearly 200 000 Zimbabweans who applied when the process was opened in 2009 and has been in this country under its various iterations since then. He has not set foot in the land of his birth since 2008.
Now he and upwards of 180 000 individuals, some of whom have established roots in South Africa, are in limbo until the government clarifies their status. Unlike Robert, others have started families and bought property here. Some of their children have known no other home except this land. They speak local languages; their cultural references and sense of geography are located here.
To be fair the Department of Home Affairs was clear from the beginning – there would be a day of reckoning. Whilst the permit does entitle holders to work, study and or conduct business, it does not give them the right to apply for permanent residence irrespective of the period of stay. As the late former minister of Home Affairs Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize said in 2017, “I trust that the ZEP will go a long way in assisting the Zimbabweans to rebuild their lives as they prepare, at work, in business and in educational institutions, for their final return to their sovereign state – Zimbabwe – in the near future.”
It would seem that, that future has arrived. But some of them are crying foul arguing that in light of their period of stay here – in some cases, like Robert for more than 13 years, they cannot be summarily evicted. When I mentioned this central pillar of their high court application, the vitriol on Twitter and from some callers to my radio show was unsurprising. “They have a country to go back to! There is no war in Zimbabwe, they should go back finish and klaar! Kudlalwa ngathi (they are playing with us!)
The South African government said at the onset that the attempt to regularise Zimbabweans was motivated by, “the wisdom of the finest son of the South African revolution, OR Tambo; we do this in the spirit of international solidarity, conscious of the political imperative to build peace and friendship in the continent and in the whole world.” We have since entered into a number of treaties like the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which envisages a single market for goods and services, facilitated by movement of persons. This consequently places free migration of persons at the heart of free trade as set out in Article 3(a) of the agreement.
It remains to be seen how the high court will rule in this matter but one wonders who is really resisting the way of the future – Robert and his compatriots or the South Africans who want the colonial borders so many of them scorn to stay shut for their fellow Africans.