By Eddie Cross
Last year something close to 150 million people without documents or money tried to migrate from their home countries to other countries where they thought they might find shelter and a means of earning a living.
We see the pictures on our television screens and sometimes the image of the body of a small boy on a beach in sneakers brings it home just what horrors people who undertake such journeys, face.
We live in a very unequal world where the gap between the haves and the have nots grows wider every year. I remember so clearly my first visit to Europe and my impression that there were no poor people.
I was wrong of course, there were poor people everywhere but in a country where the Poverty Datum Line is US$15 000 per annum, everything is relative. Where I come from poor people subsist on a tiny fraction of that sum and often go to bed hungry.
I am an African and it was a shock for even me to visit India for a Bankers Conference, to see the absolute poverty. To visit major Cities and see the streets closed off at night to allow hundreds of thousands of people sleep on the road. The streets covered in what looked like bundles of rags.
Where the Municipality had a truck on standby in the morning to haul away those bundles that did not move when the sun came up. Africans place a high regard for dignity in death and for my colleagues this was an unforgettable experience.
So when your own country goes through tough times – like so often have been experienced in Zimbabwe in the past 40 years, families and individuals take hard decisions on what to do. One of my business ventures was a small supermarket and bakery at the border town of Beitbridge.
Because of its location we had first-hand experience of the terrors that face migrants. My standing instruction to the staff was that no hungry person was to be turned away, they were taken to a stock room at the back and fed a meal and given something to drink.
A young man heard he could get something to eat there and he presented himself one morning and I was there at the time. I was puzzled – he was very young, about 18 I thought, came from the Binga District near the Zambezi.
I sat him down and asked what his story was and he told me that he had been sent by his family to find a job in South Africa and then send money home to help his parents and siblings. He had travelled to the border by bus and then joined a group who waded through the Limpopo River about 20 kilometres downstream from the Border Post.
They all knew what they were doing was illegal and dangerous – gangs of thieves in South Africa preyed on the migrants and often they were joined by the Police and even army units deployed to stop the flow of migrants – that year I estimated 500 000 people had fled the country for greener pastures in South Africa and Botswana.
He survived, walked 60 kilometres to the main road and got a lift into Johannesburg with a long distance driver. He had no money, no friends, could not speak any local language and very quickly he was picked up and taken to a refugee centre outside the City where hundreds of others were located.
After a week they were herded onto a train, the doors locked and they were taken back to Zimbabwe – the train discharging its passengers onto the station at Beitbridge under the watchful eyes of the Zimbabwean Police and Army. He had not eaten for two days.
I gave him money to get back to Binga, his home district and wished him well. I have no doubt he would walk back down the River and try his luck once more. Had he got a job – any sort of job, he would have had to find a place to live in the sprawling shanty towns of Johannesburg and then send home to his family at least half of everything he earned.
If he could not get a job he probably would have joined a gang and would be involved in crime. He would not see anything wrong with that – he was feeding his family, paying school fees and medical expenses – even food.
I asked a local friend to take me down the River to see where people were crossing. We drove along a road that ran close to the River and after a few kilometres came across a path down to the River through thick bush.
It was not a path as such – more like a road, created by thousands of feet walking. On the other bank we could clearly see the South African fence – but it had been cut and wide spaces created for people trying to emigrate.
Sometime later, during the wet season I was told of an incident where 60 people were trying to cross the River and formed a line holding on to each other as they waded through the water. In the middle of the line was a young woman with a baby, trying to get to South Africa to visit her husband.
The River was running strongly and she missed her step and fell, throwing her baby to the man in front of her. She was swept away. On the bank they gathered to consider what to do. No one was prepared to take on a small baby in such circumstances and I am told they threw the baby into the water to follow its mother.
Anyone who knows Zimbabweans will appreciate the agony of that decision for those people, but they felt they had no choice. I visited a squatter camp outside Johannesburg at the height of the flood of refugees to South Africa.
It was a squalid place, tiny tin shacks packed with people and mainly single men. We could hear Shona being spoken. We talked with local activists and they described the often terrible conditions in such camps.
But it is not only the poor that flee from poorly governed countries, often it is the very best – American Universities come out to Zimbabwe every year to identify top students and offer them opportunities. My Granddaughter won a prestigious science prize against 30 000 students in southern Africa and was promptly offered opportunities abroad.
Young people from well to do families get their passports and immediately make plans to go abroad. My son addressed a class of A level students at a local High School – out of 120 kids only 2 said they intended to stay.
So Africa loses its best to the West. Migration is also qualitative and we are the poorer because of this.
But perhaps the greatest damage will be the collapse of the African family. We have a saying that it takes a Village to raise a child. Where would we be as a continent without the extended families of Africa? In December this past year a couple returned from Australia for Christmas – then went back to Australia where they were now citizens.
They left their three children with a Grandmother in their up market home in Harare. Students studying abroad talk of hunger and terrible living conditions, constant problems with the authorities and racial prejudice.
Those who make it, prefer to stay and just send home a few dollars each month as a sop to their consciences. Eventually they are lost permanently to their foreign places of work. Even someone like me, feels like a stranger in those countries, goodness knows how deeply others feel the same thing.
A colleague was in London once and on Oxford Street when he saw a lone man who looked like a Zimbabwean on the opposite side of the street. He took a chance and shouted ‘Iwe’ (hey you!).
He stopped, looked around for where that had come from and they spent a marvellous day together, both lonely, lost Africans in a strange place, He was a student, he was there for a conference on agriculture, he was black, my colleague was white. It made no difference they were Zimbabweans.
Our job, if we are going to find solutions to these problems, is to get our countries working again. It is a choice and never easy. I choose to stay at home and work for a better future for all Zimbabweans. There can be no higher calling.
Eddie Cross is a former opposition MDC MP for Bulawayo South and a respected economist. You can follow his blog African Herd