‘Don’t feel like I belong’ : A Zimbabwean athlete in South Africa

Life in South Africa has been like a marathon with ups and downs for a Zimbabwean athlete in search of opportunities and a home.

South Africa-based Zimbabwean athlete Givemore Mudzinganyama during a recent race in Johannesburg [Courtesy of Givemore Mudzinganyama]
South Africa-based Zimbabwean athlete Givemore Mudzinganyama during a recent race in Johannesburg [Courtesy of Givemore Mudzinganyama]

This article is part of a feature series, Migration within Africa: Home so close to home.

Harare, Zimbabwe – For as long as Givemore Mudzinganyama can remember, he has been running.

As a child growing up in the prison facility where the eldest of his four siblings worked in Chikurubi, some 25km (15.5 miles) from Harare, he regularly ran 5km (3.1 miles) daily to school in one of the neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the Zimbabwean capital. Growing up, he competed in races as early as primary school.

In 2005, when he won a scholarship to Churchill Boys High School, a prestigious Harare institution with famous alumni like South African rugby sensation Tendai “Beast” Mundawarara and former Zimbabwe cricketers Tatenda Taibu and Vusi Sibanda, he started thinking of becoming a world-class runner.

“It became more intense as people were getting scholarships to US colleges to run,” Mudzinganyama, now 32, told Al Jazeera.

One of the three colleges he applied to, offered him a scholarship. But his American dream ended before it began as he could not afford a flight ticket there.

At the time, the local athletics scene was not properly organised and prize money for races was low. Till today, there remains a dearth of training facilities and other infrastructure for sportspeople.

“Athletes get paid no more than $1,000 for winning a marathon in Zimbabwe [so] athletes tend to go to countries [where] they feel they can win and relocate,” Cliff Chinnasamy, a Durban-based South African coach who has worked with top Zimbabwean long-distance runners including Collen Makaza and Steven Muzhingi since 2000, told Al Jazeera. “For example, the Lagos marathon pays $50,000 to winning athletes.”

Yet Mudzinganyama was determined to fulfil his passion and earn a living doing so.

“As I got older … I started wishing to reach that level that I was watching on TV,” he told Al Jazeera. “In those days, I didn’t see where it was going to take me because it was just passion that was driving me.”

With no degree and no clear path to his goal, he moved to South Africa in March 2009, accepting an invitation from his brother who had quit his job as a prison warden and relocated to Cape Town.

Givemore Mudzinganyama on a regular day of training [Courtesy of Givemore Mudzinganyama]
Givemore Mudzinganyama on a regular day of training [Courtesy of Givemore Mudzinganyama]

Season of migration

Since the turn of the millennium, Zimbabwe’s economy has frequently stuttered; in 2009, hyperinflation led to the country adopting multiple currencies including the US dollar in lieu of its own currency.

As unemployment surged over the years, so did migration.

In the last two decades, an estimated two million Zimbabweans have migrated to neighbouring South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised country, for a better life. An estimated one million people have migrated outside Africa over the years as the economy collapsed.

Partly because of its proximity to them, South Africa, the region’s economic powerhouse, remains a preferred destination for migrants across the region – and the continent – along with Botswana, to Zimbabwe’s east.

According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, approximately 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, a conservative estimate, as many African countries do not track migration.

Cities in Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt are the main destinations for this intra-African migration, “reflecting the relative economic dynamism of these locales,” the report reads.

By comparison, some 11 million African migrants live in Europe, almost five million in the Middle East and around three million in North America.

And the lack of opportunities at home could see more young Zimbabweans leaving in future, stakeholders in the sports industry say.

“I don’t believe Zimbabwe will ever have the facilities in place to keep athletes there,” says US-based Ken Hamden, a two-time Zimbabwean Olympian in hurdles.

“I believe the athletes are leaving for better training conditions, better coaching, education and opportunity. Zimbabwe offers little to none of the above currently. World-class athletes need high-level treatment, strength coaching, mental coaching,” Hamden told Al Jazeera.

New country, new problems

Like many other Zimbabwean immigrants, Mudzinganyama faced hurdles obtaining a work permit.

“I came in through a visitor’s visa and would only stay for a limited period. Sometimes port authorities would let me in for three months and sometimes for a month,” he said. “When you have it and it needs renewal, an athlete is not considered as a skilled worker [so] every time you want to renew it, it’s a big challenge.”

He had to travel around some 1,940 km (1205 miles) to the Beitbridge border post with Zimbabwe several times a year, exit and re-enter South Africa to comply with entry requirements.

“In those days they used to say you had to leave the country for seven days and then be granted entry again. In 2011, I got a proper visa. Now I’m waiting for the new visa,” Mudzinganyama said.

He is currently on the Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP), a temporary residence permit issued by the South African government to Zimbabwean nationals who held the previous Zimbabwe Special Permit (ZSP) to regularise their presence in the country.

ZEPs were set to expire in June 2023, but the scheme has now been extended to December.

In the last two decades, xenophobic violence has been a recurring issue in South Africa, with other African nationals being targeted. That has also led to the emergence of nationalist groups like Operation Dudula and left Mudzinganyama perpetually worried.

“The places I stayed in were never affected but I was scared that I would be a victim,” he said.

He had to learn some Xhosa, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages but still does not feel a sense of belonging after 14 years in the country.

And life still feels like running in one of his marathons, he told Al Jazeera.

“I don’t feel like I belong here,” he said. “It’s satisfying but it’s not home. When I have [permanent] residency, I could buy a house and stay for as long as I want … [but] at the end of the day, you know home is best.”

Survival as a migrant athlete with no job was also tough, he said. For someone who relied on income from races, he soon discovered making money from the competitions was a gamble.

Still, being a resident of South Africa has had its advantages.

His love for running has thrived, as has his career.

His regular day varies depending on his training objective but he runs an average of 25-30km (15.5-18.6 miles) daily. And there are a few people in the running community with whom he started off as competitors and now regards as friends who he attends a running clinic with, Mudzinganyama said.

There is also an abundance of competitions, well-planned in advance.

Some of the major races include the 56km (34.8 miles)Two Oceans ultramarathon; the Comrades Marathon, an 87.8km (54.7 miles) ultramarathon between Pietermaritzburg and Durban; the Soweto Marathon and the Cape Town Marathon.

Flights from Zimbabwe to South Africa are about one to two hours long, but cost as much as $200-300, a pricey sum for many upcoming athletes. Staying 20 minutes away from the venue of the race made things easier, he said.

“When you are travelling to run a race, it tires you. Those are small things that I didn’t want to disturb me,” he said.

In Cape Town, he drew inspiration from others in the industry as he sought to establish himself as an athlete. But the city is naturally humid and its altitude was not the best for an athlete to acclimatise, he said. He also could not afford a coach there.

Alternatively, Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital, seemed ideal for an athlete to train for long-distance running. In November 2020, he moved there and started training with a coach who provided him with both food and accommodation along with a number of social runners he trained.

Catching big fish

“From there, I started winning small races,” he said. “We had money to eat and for other things.”

His new rigorous training regime led to a marked shift in his performance. “In 2021, there was a 50km [31 miles] race in Port Elizabeth. I didn’t have much time to train but I finished the race in 16th position,” he said.

But in April 2022, Mudzinganyama won the Seshego Marathon, a 50km (31-mile) race held in South Africa’s Limpopo province. This February, he won the Kazungula Marathon, a 42km (26-mile) marathon in Botswana in February.

Two months later, he won Cape Town’s prestigious Two Oceans Marathon, earning him 300,000 South African rands ($16,000) in prize money.

“It’s been many years trying to catch big fish,” Mudzinganyama said in a tweet after the last race.

And now he wants to improve his speed, run more marathons and potentially represent Zimbabwe at the Olympics. But with goals come pressure and Mudzinganyama is keen to avoid that.

“If it happens, it happens … if I qualify I will be happy,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera