Among the throngs of desperate Zimbabweans queuing at the Home Affairs office in Wynberg, sat a forlorn-looking woman on the side pavement, hopeful that she would get to the front of the ever-growing line to submit her application that could possibly give her a ticket to a life that she could only dream of having in her home country.
Caroline Marube* (30) was back for a second time on Wednesday, just two days before the deadline by which all two million Zimbabweans in South Africa – both those illegally in the country and those with asylum status – have to submit applications to obtain work and education permits or face deportation to a country where its citizens are struggling to access basic amenities.
When she arrived at the crack of dawn the morning, she was nearly the 700th person in the queue. She was forced to return, as the previous day she was number 1,164 and did not make it after waiting for more than 12 hours in the scorching sun and ferocious wind.
Although it may be a possibility, Marube said she had not yet thought about what she would do if the application was rejected, since going back to Zimbabwe was not an option. “I have nowhere to go,” she said, trying to block the thought from her mind. “I can’t say I will go back to Zimbabwe because for three years I have been in South Africa. I don’t know where to start if I go back to Zimbabwe. My life is here in South Africa. If you ask me about home it’s now here in South Africa.”
Marube explained how tough life in Zimbabwe was. “It survival of the fittest,” she said. “Those who are fittest are able to survive but if you are not fit you are not going to survive in Zimbabwe. Those who are poor will be poor and those who are rich will always be richer than others.”
The economic and political breakdown in the country had devastating effects on its citizens and saw the deaths of innocent people who were only attempting to find ways of surviving. “During that time life was terrible!” exclaimed Marube. “Getting an education was difficult because all the teachers were going on strike. The children will go to school but there would be no teachers. We used to pay teachers ourselves so that the kids can get extra lessons at home but the problem was that they didn’t get any acknowledgment for receiving that education.”
Access to health was even worse and had deadly effects. “If you went to the hospital there would be no doctor
because they are all on strike,” explained Marube, reliving the events that occurred during the horrid time period. “For them to treat you, you must pay money upfront. It means more people were dying because they couldn’t manage to pay the fees. Sometimes hospitals didn’t have a drip. So you need to rush to the pharmacy to look for a drip so the patients can survive.”
The basic access to food was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. At one stage shelves at supermarkets were completely empty. “At one time we didn’t even have,” said Marube. “People would fight if they find mielie meal because the suppliers couldn’t manage to supply the food anymore. Shops were empty. People were selling food on the black market. They would put their own prices on items that were in demand.”
Many would find it difficult to fathom how people were surviving just by drinking water in our neighbouring country.
Marube said she hoped she and her family would receive their permits so that her husband, Jacob* (30) could quit his job as a waiter at a Cape Town hotel and put his marketing degree to good use especially for the benefit of their seven year old son. She, too would be delighted and grateful is she could find a job with her diploma in secretarial studies. “From management down, my husband is the most educated person among his colleagues but he can’t get a job because local companies do not want to employ people with refugee status.”
In addition to praying for permits, Marube said she’s also praying that South Africans can one day accept the presence of Zimbabweans in the country, as almost always they were being discriminated against. “South Africans must treat us as human beings,” she said almost pleadingly. “Zimbabwe was a nice country and we didn’t think one of the days we will be in South Africa. So they [South Africans] must know life can change at any time. Maybe one of the days South Africans will run to other people’s countries and they will feel what it’s like to be treated badly in a foreign country. We are friendly. We are here to help their country and here to help ourselves at the same time.”
*Not their real names.