Geoff Hill

South Africa’s migrant crisis

[Getty Images]


It’s called the ‘Reverse Jive’, retracing your steps to where your journey began, and you’ll hear it talked about all over Johannesburg, especially now, with an election next Wednesday and immigration such a hot-button issue.

South Africa has a huge informal sector where the poor can at least scratch a living

In Pretoria, the government estimates there are more than three million Zimbabweans, or ‘Zimbos’, living in South Africa. Decades of oppression and mismanagement at home have collapsed the economy and Zimbos form a visible presence in Jo’burg, Durban and Cape Town. And thousands of them have done the Reverse Jive.

Enelise comes from Bulawayo and works the till at my local corner-store and, with me being Zimbabwean and a ‘home boy’, we always chat while I pay. She is 28 and rents a room in a nearby house. One night, on her way home from a party, Enelise was stopped by police looking for illegal migrants. Her accent gave her away as a foreigner and she was unable to produce a work permit. ‘Sometimes they take a bribe,’ she said, ‘Sometimes not.’

She was allowed to pack a bag, then taken into custody and eventually bussed 320 miles north to Beitbridge, the sole crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe over what Rudyard Kipling called the ‘great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River’.

‘Quick! Let’s virtue-signal to gain the kids’ approval.’

The bus, she later told me, had 60 or 70 illegals on it. ‘We were processed through the emigration point on the South African side,’ she said. ‘Some had overstayed their visa, but most had no papers. I had given the police a fake name and they accepted it.’

But how did she tell me this, you ask. By phone from Bulawayo? No! Enelise was arrested on a Thursday and was back at her till the next week. ‘Once you cross the bridge, the Zimbabwean authorities ask for your local ID number. Or your passport. They log that, ask what town you are from, and let you go.’ And right there, she said, just outside the customs hall, are the mini-bus taxis or malaisha – slang for ‘we will carry you’ – waiting for business. ‘Eight of us climbed into a malaisha and went back to Jo’burg.’

The drivers are known to the authorities on both sides of the Limpopo and pay a bribe to each. Enelise and her fellow travellers had done the Reverse Jive.

Last year, a new Border Management Authority was established including a paramilitary wing tasked with catching those who have jumped South Africa’s 3,000-mile land border, and thousands have been intercepted and sent home. But it’s a fraction of those who get through and the rest will no doubt try again.

But why do so many millions from across the country end up here on its southern tip? Do the maths. Zimbabwe, once the second-most diversified economy in Africa, has a GDP of just £25 billion, equivalent to that of Derbyshire. Rwanda’s is £10 billion and Liberia’s is a third of that. By contrast, South Africa’s economy is worth £320 billion a year including a huge informal sector – tuck shops, market stalls, unlicensed bars – where the poor can at least scratch a living. And with a population of 62 million, largely urban, it’s easy enough to hide.

The best intelligence lies on the ground and, as a journalist, when I want to take stock of how people are thinking or who they might vote for in the election, I visit a beer hall, known locally as a ‘shebeen’. There are hundreds in the black townships around Johannesburg. Some are licensed, others not; they range in size from a living room to an aircraft hangar, but the beer is always cheap. In this land of plenty where so many go to bed hungry, the beer hall is an escape, a place for talking, dancing, gossiping and bumming drinks from a white journalist.

Invariably I will be the only white face in a throng of black South Africans and almost as many migrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and all the way north to Sudan. Never have I been singled out or made to feel unwelcome, and speaking the vernacular – no matter how badly – does help. South Africa has the world’s third-highest murder rate and violence can erupt in a flash but I have a security team, all Zulus, who eye the mood and tell me if it’s time to leave.

Black-on-black xenophobia can be an issue, but for the most part people mix freely and I hear about the problems of unemployment, power cuts, taps that often run dry and why some in their twenties plan to vote for the 82-year-old former president Jacob Zuma, who stands accused of embezzling billions. ‘Because no one else is listening,’ they say. Zuma does walkabouts and will drop in at beer halls, whereas other politicians have armed guards just to move from their house to the blue-light convoy that speeds them through the traffic.

In the beer halls over the years, I’ve heard endless accounts of the Reverse Jive. Some have been deported to Malawi a thousand miles and three countries away, others much further, to Burundi, the Congo and Cameroon, only to return. At election time, the round-ups become more aggressive so that voters can see the ruling party is finally getting tough.

‘Just to warn you – there’s an election coming.’

Recently Mozambique announced that, on leaving school, young men will need to spend five years in the army, in an effort to defeat Islamic rebels in the north. The result has been an influx of Mozambicans to South Africa, most of them illegal. Not long here, some tell me they’ve already done the Reverse Jive. And it doesn’t only happen in South Africa. Congolese are deported from oil-rich Angola, to no avail. Ethiopians coming to work on fishing boats in Mozambique are sent home, and then make a U-turn.

Ismaël Bakina, who manages the Hope Hostel in Rwanda, where the first of Britain’s asylum transfers will be housed, has been on a PR offensive, insisting that his ‘guests’ will not be under lock and key and are free to go anywhere they want. Well, they want to be in the UK. And if they managed in the first place to get from Bangladesh, Eritrea or Burkina Faso to France, then by small boat to England, why wouldn’t they do a Reverse Jive from Rwanda? The worst that could happen would be another round of hotels and hospitality at taxpayers’ expense and a second flight to Kigali.

Those who have been deported and have then returned tell me their first trek south was the most expensive. Now they know of farms along the way where casual work can replenish your wallet, and touts who will sell you a train ticket because at the station they ask for ID. There are fishermen who will row you across a river when there are police at the bridge. The journey is slower, but more affordable. And on the cobweb of routes across Africa, there are sleepovers that specialise in migrants. Some are run by the family of the soldiers meant to stop you: shower, bed, breakfast and a cryptic note good for the next few road blocks.

If what I’ve heard at the shabeen is anything to go by, most who walk through the door of Hope Hostel in Kigali will be in Britain for Christmas.

The Reverse Jive might just be the most popular dance in Africa, but Rishi Sunak and his cabinet are going to need to learn the steps too.