Surviving lockdown as migrants living in SA

March against xenophobia in South Africa in 2015. Photo by Elitsha reporter

On Africa Day, migrants from the other parts of the continent based in South Africa talk about the hardships they continue to endure under Covid-19 and the lockdown.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has left a permanent scar on the lives of poor African migrants who earn a living in South Africa. It has also been a period marked by accusations that the government was violating the basic human rights of immigrants. 

South Africa is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an agreement which binds member states to respect and uphold the rights of all people living in their territories. The South African Bill of Rights is also clear on the rights of refugees, asylum seekers as well as migrant women and children.

When the first case of the coronavirus was recorded in the country in March last year, medical professionals were thrown into a quandary on how to combat it and prevent its spread. With so much about the virus unknown, the government responded by introducing a hard lockdown. Regrettably, the measures imposed dealt a major blow to migrants whose livelihoods depended on menial and informal jobs. Many felt they lost their humanity and dignity as they had no meaningful source of income and had to join the rank and file of beggars in order to survive.

Cresencia Nyathi of Africa Unite said various human rights of migrants were violated by the South African government. “Refugees and migrants were the first to lose jobs, and for the government to discriminate against them was not only against the Constitution but was morally wrong. In addition it is against the United Nations resolution, named the Leave-none-behind principle,” said Nyathi.

The lockdown placed some migrants at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords who brazenly defied a government moratorium on evictions. Many such cases were reported in Gqeberha. Chris Mapingure, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Migrants Support Network said, “Denying people accommodation is a violation of the right to shelter which is a basic human right. We assisted a handful of our countrymen with temporary accommodation after they were evicted by their landlords.

“Tenants were never given notices according to the country’s laws. The law on evictions is clear that a tenant is given 90 days to look for alternative accommodation. The landlords also disobeyed the government’s moratorium… The government had declared the deferment of rents by tenants who faced financial problems during the lockdown.”

Monalisa Seipei lives in Warmer Township, Gqeberha. She is a citizen of Lesotho and has worked for eight years as a waitress at a restaurant in Summerstrand. Seipei vividly remembers the day her manager told them that the restaurant would be closing and that they should apply for a Covid-19 Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) grant.

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“I had my passport and a valid permit to live and work in South Africa. I was astounded after the system rejected my application. I tried with great expectation and anxiety but the system couldn’t conform to my passport. I finally resigned in anger.

“All my workmates who are South Africans got their money. I had to survive by selling homemade face masks and other trinkets at robots intersections. My life had drastically changed that I failed to pay my rent. I was rescued from the jaws of poverty by one of my workmates whose sibling has a shack in an informal settlement in Seyisi. I lived there until the situation returned to normalcy,” Seipei said.

Seyisi is a crime ridden area and the environment is unhealthy and squalid. “I had no choice but to surrender to what fate had given me,” she ruefully said.

African migrants protesting for the re-opening of the Refugee Centre in Cape Town in 2018. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Zimbabwean national, Joyce Munodawafa, owns Masiqame Preschool in NU10, Motherwell, also in Gqeberha. She said she nearly fainted after the declaration of the lockdown because the pre-school business was the mainstay of her life. “That was the most difficult part of my life. The pre-school centre was the only means of income for myself though my husband does self-jobs. I felt like the sky had collapsed on me. I had not saved any money because I am still building the centre.”

Despite the challenges she encountered after shutting down her preschool, another door opened that empowered her. Munodawafa explained, “The lockdown also taught me to be versatile in order to survive. I started to buy and resale meat bones which I sold through various social media platforms. “It is very difficult to survive in a foreign country without assistance from the host government during times of disaster.” She said the government failed to uphold basic human rights for migrant women and their children by providing them with food and accommodation.

Zimbabwean citizen, Joyce Munodawafa at her crèche in Motherwell, Gqeberha

Arnold Musa has been working as a tailor in Kostern, Gqeberha. He left Malawi 20 years ago. He explained that his employer shed all six staff members and never paid them. “My employer refused to give us the forms for the UIF-TERS [grant] saying his business was not registered. I was shattered.

“The unfortunate part of it was that I had just sent my previous salary of R4,400 to my parents in Malawi. I was left in the grip of poverty and had to painstakingly convince my landlord that I would pay the rent with a 50% interest after selling my household items. Life just turned sour for me.  Fortunately enough, a Moslem church in Kostern eventually assisted by giving me and my workmates some food parcels.

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“I am going back to Malawi at the end of April and I will not return. Covid-19 lockdown taught me that home is best.” His elderly parents own a small plot in Mwanza district near the border with Mozambique and he plans to turn the land into a viable vegetables and cassava project.

Food parcels being distributed at SASSA offices in Khayelitsha for South Africans. Archive photo by Lilita Gcwabe.

Mapingure said, “The South African government only assisted its citizens with food parcels and a relief grant. We thought the government would respect its commitment to the laws governing migrants by assisting them.” The Zimbabwean Migrant Support Network responded to the crisis by spearheading a fundraising programme and establishing a food bank. “Many people knocked on our doors looking for food and money to pay for their rents. We started by using our personal money but the demand increased remarkably. We struggled to get assistance from other civic organisations as they were concentrating on feeding South African citizens only.”

Mapingure said they were eventually assisted by The Gift of the Givers and the Red Cross. “Still the volume of desperate migrants kept increasing while these two organizations offered food parcels for 500 people out of about one million who are on our database. We also received many nationals of Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. We realised that the claim by South Africa that it accords human rights [and] dignity to all who live in it was just a smokescreen. It is not a reality.”

Africa Unite’s Cresencia Nyathi also appealed to the government to empower migrants by introducing training programmes so that they integrate seamlessly in communities they live in. “We condemn the way the government handled the relief fund as immigrants were excluded making them more vulnerable,” she said. “I sent emails to the embassies of Zimbabwe and Mozambique inquiring what they did to assist their nationals. They never responded.”

The Eastern Cape spokesperson for Sassa, Luzuko Qina, said some migrants benefited from the government handouts. “All permanent residents and permit holders, recognised by the Department of Home Affairs were initially included on the social security services by the government. Asylum seekers were later included. We are paying above 200,000 people of such categories. Sassa continues to be of assistance and pays all those eligible to access our services.”

The report is supported by Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) through its Mobilising Media in the Fight against Covid-19 (MMFC) in partnership with Media Monitoring Africa and Sound Africa.

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About Joseph Chirume 45 Articles
I was born in the shoe manufacturing town of Gweru in Zimbabwe,1970. I came to South Africa and did some odd jobs before writing for a number of publications. At present I am doing a Masters in Journalism through distance learning.