Zimbabwean refugees: Between haven and hell

Zimbabweans continue to flock to South Africa where local churches provide them with food and education.

Zimbabwe refugee South Africa

Johannesburg, South Africa – Downtown Johannesburg is no paradise. Some consider it an unfriendly and dilapidated concrete jungle. It is, however, cherished by those who cannot part with memories of better days – and those who call it home.

Thirty or so children call the Central Methodist Church in the heart of the city their home from 6.30am to 6pm every week day. They greet visitors with giddy cheers and screams, each clamouring to get a peek through a barred gate.

“Pick me up, pick me up,” they say as they tussle for attention. These are the sons and daughters of undocumented migrants in South Africa. Few parents can actually afford the meagre cost of daycare – but it is a service they require to ensure the safety of their children, while they go out to look for work.

Oblivious to the rising smell of sewage, the children play and tease and cheer and jeer – as children do – in the basement of the church.

“The pipe burst. The smell was a lot worse,” Naomi Bezuidenhoud told Al Jazeera, adding that she and a colleague from the law firm next door helped clean the basement. “This entire level was full of sewage.”

It is assistance like this that keeps the church afloat, allowing it to help some of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants who arrive in South Africa from Zimbabwe. 

For William Kandowe, the headmaster of the Albert Street School, run by the Central Methodist Church, recent improvements to the centre are a blessing.

Kandowe, along with head of the mission Bishop Paul Verryn and other patrons of the church, started schooling migrant children during 2008 after realising the danger of drugs, alcohol and criminal activity that the children faced on the streets of Johannesburg.

Street life

Kandowe knows those streets well. He made his harrowing trek to South Africa in 2007.

Coming from a family of Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) members in Mashona Land East, and privy to some of the inner workings of the party, he decided to take a different political turn. He joined the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

As Zimbabweans vote in a contested election between the two main parties, there are fears political violence could erupt again, as it did in 2008.

Kandowe’s decision to join the opposition had repercussions. His friends and family became the target of raids and intimidation by allies of the ruling party. The thugs, he says, wanted to find him to ensure his silence.   

“I did not expect to have to stay so long,” he says of South Africa. “I still hope to go home.”

Things have not been easy in the neighbouring country. Shortly after arriving in Johannesburg, he found out that the few people he knew in the country were not keen on having him, had disappeared, or had moved to other towns and provinces. 

He spent three nights on the concrete floor at Park Central train Station before he learned about the refuge at the Central Methodist Church. He says he almost lost his certificates and documents after robbers attacked him.

The church gave him shelter, food once a day, and some opportunity to use his skills and a chance to find work. He began to train people to use computers.

Teaching the young

“We try to empower people,” Bishop Verryn says. “In fact one of our rules of the building is that you have to be involved in an empowerment or education programme.” 

The school is one such programme. When it first opened, there were 30 pupils, five voluntary teachers and two voluntary cooks. By 2009 there were 561 pupils, mostly from Zimbabwe, and 21 teachers.

Today the school has eased its numbers to 366, after various negotiations and considerations including health, safety – as well as accusations of abuse.

The school remains unregistered with South Africa’s department of education but it boasts sterling results.

In 2012, 97 percent of pupils passed their final exams – a far higher rate than the general population. 

Some of the students have gone on to study further, but many cannot. Their status in South Africa remains either that of an undocumented migrant or an asylum seeker, meaning that they do not have the right to enroll in South African institutions or seek work legally.

That rule could be set to change if a work-seeker permit option is adopted by the government, says Loren Landau, the director at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand.

Discussions about the permit, Landau says, are motivated by the effort to move tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people out of South Africa’s asylum system.

“The situation is a tough one. You have a lot of people living without legal documentation, with a great deal of hostility from the local population. And if they are able to work, [they face] a great deal of exploitation. And to add to that, regular harassment from the police and officials.”

Many of the migrants continue to face xenophobic attacks from South Africans who feel that they should return to Zimbabwe. 

Bishop Verryn says that he does not foresee the situation for Zimbabweans changing soon.

“With the elections we have seen an increase of occupants in the church again,” he says.

“Over the last few years we have seen less harassment of the kind we saw in the last Zimbabwean election,” says Landau. “But whole areas of the country have been cut off from and food aid, because of their political position. So it’s a kind of indirect harassment.” 

Zimbabweans continue to flock to South Africa. Some 23,150 Zimbabweans were deported between April and May alone. Most of the deportees then try to re-enter South Africa.


Whoever wins the election in Zimbabwe, the country will continue to face huge challenges. “Many of the educated and highly skilled people left the country, so schooling and institutions have also suffered,” Kandowe says.

He also feels that Zanu-PF will win the election, maintaining incumbent President Robert Mugabe’s leadership which has already lasted 33 years. Mugabe’s policies, poor economic management and political harrassment, Kandowe says, are forcing people to migrate.   

“If you enter a certain place, people follow you. You are monitored. You can’t do anything,” he says.

As the headmaster of Albert Street School, Kandowe keeps working to help hundreds of refugee children to improve their lives. “I encourage all the students to try to get university entrance and to continue their studies,” he says.

After seven years in South Africa, he still sees Zimbabwe as home. 

“Home is always the best,” says Kandowe. “If there is a power change definitely I will find my way back.”

Source: Al Jazeera