Having fled economic turmoil in Zimbabwe in 2008, Merlyn Ndou sought refuge in neighbouring South Africa; anticipating a change of fortunes, but the place of gold or Egoli, as South Africa is popularly known, has reduced her to a beggar.
Ndou, a qualified teacher, was recruited into a group of beggars – a Johannesburg-based syndicate created by a South African national, who provides shelter and food to desperate Zimbabweans fleeing their homeland in search of a better life having endured years of misrule back home. In return the South African demands from them a portion of whatever they get from begging.
As remuneration for her services, the South African benefactor – only identified as Bra Sol – provides Ndou with food and shelter in Shanty Town, a rundown squatter camp near Johannesburg’s Alexander Township.
The shadowy South African national has hundreds of Zimbabweans eating out from his palm, exploiting their desperation.
Every Zimbabwean beggar in the consortium has a target of 50 rand every day.
Bra Sol collects proceeds from the “beggars” at the end of each working day, and Ndou and others are left counting their losses after a day of hustling.
“Ngiyacela uncedo (Please help me),” Ndou says in a corky voice as she patiently waits for a good Samaritan to drop into her cup a few coins that would help guarantee her next meal and a roof over her head for the night.
“I should have stayed home and continued as a teacher, because life here is not easy. I hear teachers are getting a decent salary these days,” Ndou lamented.
Ndou’s benefactor cashes in all the proceeds at around 17:00 hours, provides supper and transport to her abode.
A pale-looking Ndou is suffering from a rare skin disease which needs attention and the South African benefactor is using her health condition to draw public sympathy and boost alms.
She carries a fake doctor’s report that explains her condition, which most people ignore as they go about their business.
“Bra Sol provides me with the medicine for my skin disease which started late last year. I think it is caused by our living conditions, which are terrible,” Ndou told the Financial Gazette during a recent visit to the neighbouring country.
Ndou was fired a week after getting a job as a domestic worker because her employer feared that she could spread the skin disease to her children.
The 35-year-old was left with no choice but to beg on the streets of Johannesburg.
Ndou and some of her Zimbabwean colleagues have tried to fend for themselves, but prohibitive accommodation and food costs keep them in the beggars’ world.
Another Zimbabwean, Pascal Mbedzi (24), from Beitbridge, who is stationed in Braamfontein, is a high school dropout who also left for neighbouring South Africa at the height of the country’s economic turmoil in 2008. He has since then found the going tough, forcing him to join Bra Sol’s army of beggars.
Speaking in broken English, Mbedzi targets rich white South Africans.
He sometimes offers to guard parked vehicles, receiving coke money of up to 100 rand per day and he is somewhat a favourite with the white folk.
But the vicious dependency on the benefactor has caused Mbedzi to stick with the pack.
“I am a young man whose dreams were stolen away by poverty back home. Things were not well so I decided to come here. At least I can get food and a place to stay – it’s not enough though,” Mbedzi said.
“I am looking for capital to start my own business; I know I can make it one day,” said Mbedzi, who, along with other beggars, are each morning dropped off at strategic points to begin their daily chores of begging for a living.
Speaking to the Financial Gazette, a Zimbabwean freelance journalist based in South Africa, Guide Muringai, said there were many untold stories of the suffering Zimbabweans are going through in the Rainbow nation, as South Africa is fondly known.
“Most of our people, due to desperation are used to commit things like crime, drug peddling, sex and begging which is degrading us as a nation. This is how our government has reduced thousands of its citizens to paupers,” Muringai said.
Zimbabwean women have been recruited into drug syndicates where some Nigerian nationals allegedly use drugs to lure them into the sex trade.
Desperate young girls are kept in houses situated in Sunnyside, Rosettenville, Windsor, Benoni, Newlands, Newclare and Eldorado Park, among other areas, in a situation that most probably dwarfs the Kuwait human trafficking saga that received much publicity recently.
Reports say the girls are tied to their beds during the day so that they don’t escape. They are then released at night to engage in illicit sexual activities.
Department of Home Affairs spokesperson, Mayihlome Tshwete blamed human trafficking on South Africa’s liberal travel regulations with most citizens from countries such as Zimbabwe freely entering the country.
“It is easy for people to engage in trafficking because South Africa has many ports of entry, hence easy access. So we are pushing for tough immigration regulations,” Tshwete said.
South African non-governmental organisations have been engaging in campaigns against drug abuse as part of efforts meant to stamp out the drug and sex trade problem, which has rocked most parts of Johannesburg.
Police constantly blamed the victims for not reporting such incidences.
An estimated three million Zimbabweans are believed to be residing in South Africa, with the largest percentage of the population living without permits and well paying jobs.
Despite these hardships, many Zimbabweans living in South Africa have chosen to stay put in the neighbouring country until normalcy returns to their motherland.
Recently, #ThisFlag campaign founder, Pastor Evan Mawarire, who has also sought refuge in that country after infuriating President Robert Mugabe for organising a hugely successful stayaway in July, told the Zimbabwean story to technocrats at Wits and Rhodes universities as he sought to mobilise support for change in Zimbabwe.
General sentiments by Zimbabweans in South Africa are that the government should admit failure, paving way for early elections in order to effect change in the country.