Welcome to part two of my guest writer series- Panda’s Penpals. Today’s post is simple but thought-provoking. Most of my readers know what its like to be a foreigner in someone else’s land; but have you ever thought about what it takes for some to be a foreigner in YOUR land?
Mhoro and sawubona! That is me saying hello in my native tongue, Shona and also in the most common language spoken in South Africa, isiZulu. My name is Gamuchirai and and I am an African. Notice how I am not defining myself by a country name? You will find out why later on.
When Panda asked me to contribute to her blog, I wanted to say no because creative writing has never been my thing. But I have always fantasised about being famous so I thought this could be my one shot (kidding… not kidding?!).
I was born in a tiny little town called Masvingo in Zimbabwe. Growing up I never imagined leaving my own country for another… well… I don’t think many children do. However, circumstances changed and when I was about 11, I had to start thinking about it. The economy worsened drastically in Zimbabwe- inflation was at its worst by the year 2000. I started high school in that year and my fees were $4 000 for the first term, in the 2nd term it was $8 000 and by the last term it was $24 000. You get the picture. My parents had to move elsewhere for “greener pastures” so down to sunny old South Africa it was.
I arrived in Durban, South Africa on the 26th of January 2007 a year after my country started declining. I arrived by bus and let me tell you, the bus journey from Zimbabwe to South Africa could be another blog post on its own (if this one goes well!).
I vividly remember all the new smells from that day; I was more excited than apprehensive to be in this new place I would call home. I mean this was SOUTH AFRICA! Not super exotic to people who grew up here but to me… WOW!
The first day you land in a place is always memorable isn’t it? Even if you don’t remember the details or everything passes you by in a blur, you always remember how you felt or the little things, like that first scent of the humid air or the way the people looked so foreign to your untrained eye. Just so you know, it has been 10 years and 6 months since that poignant day.
As per Panda’s request, I want to share 5 things you might not know about what it takes to be a Zimbabwean in South Africa:
You are black but not entirely black
So when you are black in South Africa, most South Africans will automatically assume you are local and that you speak a South African language. The struggle of constantly explaining that you do not speak any South African language but would prefer to converse in English, would result in comments such as “OH you think you are white” randomly being thrown at you as you ask for directions in English at the taxi rank. Does speaking English make you white? Hmmm. No one taught me that in Zimbabwe.
Documentation is a headache!
South Africa is an immigration documentation nightmare. It is very difficult to legalise your stay here mainly because it is swamped with African refugees and economic immigrants. When I first came to SA I was on a study visa; this was not really the most difficult visa to obtain. Extending this visa for an extra year to do my postgrad studies took a full year. It was only granted after I finished my degree!
In terms of a work visa, this is one of the worst. The Department of Home Affairs recently changed their application processes to make it even harder, resulting in a lot of illegal immigrants in the country. To make matters worse, any child born in South Africa to non-citizens cannot be a citizen,. Did you know that? So when I gave birth to my precious little one we had to get Zimbabwean particulars for her and then apply for a temporary residence permit for her before applying for permanent residence. All this for a little baby.
Finding a job in South Africa is arduous but for a foreigner in South Africa it is a “hunt”. The country has high levels of unemployment and is currently trying to drop this unemployment among South Africans by hiring South Africans. Which makes sense. Foreign nationals are therefore not a priority unless it is a scarce skill (basically, if you are a rocket scientist or maybe not even). I remember being fresh out of university with a Master’s degree, loaded with hopes and dreams. Everyone except the two Zimbabweans in that class managed to score internships and it was devastating for me because the response I would get everywhere was the same: ‘We do not offer foreign nationals internships’. I eventually got my job at a start-up owned by a Zimbabwean.
Since the economy is currently in a recession, I predict it will get even tougher not only for foreign nationals but for all people in South Africa to get jobs, even with a high level of education.
Oh so you think going from one African country to another means no culture shock? Think again! I was born in a small town called Masvingo, there is very little diversity in such small towns. 95% of the people there are black of Shona origin so I had never got a chance to interact with people from different cultures, let alone races! During my university registration and orientation week at my university in Durban, I remember telling my dad that all these people are so different from me and that I didn’t know if I would cope in university. The diversity in South Africa is overwhelming to someone from a homogenous society!!
Even though I felt so misplaced, I soon found a small community of Zimbabweans on campus which I ended up being the mayor of (or so I would like to think!). A few years later I met Panda and she became my favourite Indian South African and I her favourite Zimbabwean (not that she had a lot to pick from).
Apart from this kind of culture shock, I also realised that I did not fit in to the stereotypes of the typical black person in South Africa. I did not experience the same struggles they did because well, I did not understand racism. This is big guys!!
I remember the one time a white man referred to a group of us (black girls) as “you people” and the whole conversation escalated from 0 to 100 in 2 seconds. I sat there in shock because I did not have a problem with him labelling us (yeah we are black, so what?) but the South Africans took offence (probably because it was coming from a white man. The response would’ve been different if the man was another colour).
In May 2008 a series of xenophobic attacks left 62 people dead in South Africa. I remember when the news first broke out my dad insisted on picking us up from university and dropping us off instead of us using the bus. I was not exactly terrified but more saddened by such hatred and violence. Although I could never condone such acts, I kind of understood why the average South African person was angry. They want the South Africa they dreamt of pre apartheid and this was not what they were getting from the government. Not at all.
Xenophobic attacks made me feel small, out of place and unwanted. I never experienced the violence or hate but just to watch my fellow Africans being killed, my heart broke. It still breaks a little every time I think about it.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in her timeless classic “The Writing Life.” I have spent most of my life living as an expat in South Africa and I know that South Africans instinctively get this. There’s a sense of ease, even joy, to South African living so when I go to Zimbabwe I feel a tiny bit foreign. I have been here for so long now that I cannot help but love this country. It is an absolutely beautiful country with a rich diverse culture and yes, the infrastructure is close to none in Southern Africa. Most people refer to it as the New York of Africa and I honestly think that’s apt. If I had to choose another country to settle in I might not choose South Africa but… here I am, with my Zimbabwean husband, happily raising a family. Although, like most expats, who knows where I will end up.
Gamu’s piece definitely opened my eyes to things I had no idea about (no citizenship to babies born in this country- seriously?) and confirmed suspicions I already had. Although not all South Africans are xenophobic or racist, there are way too many people that still are. Do you know what people face when they come to your country seeking a better life? Comment below and let us know your thoughts!