As South Africa bade farewell to the eight African heads of state who had attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Cape Town, earlier this month, President Thabo Mbeki found himself having to answer yet more questions about last month's attacks on thousands of African migrant workers living in his country. They stand accused by poor black South Africans of getting jobs, which are scarce, as well as government-subsidized housing. This recent spate of xenophobic violence left more than 62 people dead, some 670 injured and displaced more than 100 000 migrants in the process. Although calm was restored on South African streets in the days ahead of the WEF, visiting African dignitaries looked towards Pretoria for guarantees of safety for their nationals. As President Mbeki scrambled to find answers as to what had caused last month's mayhem, which sent shock waves across the rest of the continent, many migrants could be seen fleeing the country or those, not fortunate enough return to their own countries, slowly trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
However, unlike their fellow-Mozambicans or Malawians, for many Zimbabweans the option of returning back home simply does not exist. With widespread reports of violence ahead in their country's second presidential poll on 27 June, the evolving and inter-related social and economic crisis in Zimbabwe has contributed to an unprecedented exodus of Zimbabweans from all over the country.
Although the majority of Zimbabwean migrants in South Africa are thought to have left their home country in the hope of finding a better life and better opportunities in their more prosperous southern neighboring state, thousands more are believed to have fled the political repression by the state and are determined not to return to Zimbabwe until political and economic conditions improve with a possible departure by President Robert Mugabe from political office. The country is undergoing an unprecedented flight of skills from both the public and private sector to neighboring South Africa. It is widely thought that up to three million Zimbabweans are currently living in South Africa. The problem is exacerbated by South African visa requirements for would-be Zimbabwean travelers, issued by a corrupt South African Home Affairs Department, which makes it increasingly easier to obtain illegal identity documents and work permits.
To make matters worse, economic conditions in South Africa itself have worsened considerably in recent months, exacerbating an already difficult situation for ordinary, frustrated, poor South Africans. The country saw its economic growth slowing down sharply during the first three months of the year, marking a six-year low. The mining industry, a lifeline for the country's economy, saw its output plummet by more than 22% this year - the lowest level in four decades. Meanwhile, the worst nation-wide blackout in the country's history is destroying investor confidence in South Africa, and forcing many industries to shed jobs as a cost-effective measure to minimize the negative effect of higher production costs and profit losses.
Government stands accused of having done little to avert the crisis. Blamed for absence of a long-term vision and being slow in responding to calls by the private and public sector to inject much needed human and financial resources into this sector, in order to upgrade the country's crumbling power infrastructure, the African National Congress government has been criticized for having millions of South Africans live through daily blackouts at the beginning of the year. With an unofficial unemployment rate as high as 40%, surging food prices, a crumbling healthcare sector, the heavy impact of the scourge of the HIV pandemic that affects more than five million South Africans, and an ever-increasing crime rate, poor South Africans have come to look at African migrants as scapegoats for their socio-economic woes.
The recent criminal violence has besmirched the image of South Africa, as a land of hope and equal opportunities, throughout the continent. Granted the fact that the socio-economic ills facing the country will not be addressed in a span of less than two decades, critics contend that the government should shoulder some of the blame for the current crisis. Its market-oriented macro-economic policy, combined with affirmative action programs, designed to deal with the legacies of the apartheid, has inevitably increased the gap between an extremely affluent white minority population and a small, but steadily growing extremely wealthy black upper-class, with strong ties to government, on the one hand, and the rest of the population, many of whom live in abject poverty, on the other. The success of these government's policies have been undermined by a failure of service delivery at local level and, more importantly, by the severe skills shortage that the country is facing as a result of emigration.
The question now remains as to how long poor South Africans' frustrations and their desperation about the increasingly dire socio-economic situation would be targeted towards their African brethren, before being leveled against government. There will come a time when South Africans will start pointing fingers towards their national leaders, questioning whether their struggle to end apartheid 14 years ago was not all in vain. In the meantime, Zimbabweans living in South Africa prepare themselves for more difficult times ahead of them.
Also appeard in Bangladesh Today, The Zimbabwe Guardian, Accra Mail (Ghana) and Ramadji (Chad)