Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Matabeland Migration Linked to South Africa Violence

Matabeleland activist says mass exodus to Zimbabwe’s southern neighbour always carried with it the seeds of a possible backlash.
By Joseph Nhlanhla
The xenophobic attacks that have rocked South Africa in recent weeks, claiming the lives of an estimated 60 people and displacing and dispossessing tens of thousands of legal and illegal immigrants, continue to resonate in the southern regions of Zimbabwe where they threaten the livelihood of whole communities.

Local researchers say virtually every person in the Matabeleland region, which comprises the whole of western Zimbabwe, from the South African border in the south to Victoria Falls in the north, has a relative working in South Africa. While the Zimbabwean government puts the official figure at a little over one million, according to other estimates more than three million Zimbabweans, most of them from Matabeleland, live in South Africa.

Matabeleland, a low-rainfall area, has never had much to offer its growing population, unlike the northern Mashonaland provinces, which receive sufficient rain to make agriculture possible. Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city and the hub of Matabeleland, was once the manufacturing centre of the country. Today, it is a shadow of its former self, with most of its factories closed.

Apart from ranching, very little farming takes place in the province and young people have had to move out in search of work. Culturally and historically, the Ndebele people of Matabeleland have their roots in South Africa, and are closer to their southern neighbours than their Shona compatriots to the north.

There is no love lost between Robert Mugabe’s government and the people of Matabeleland. A five-year reign of terror waged by Mugabe’s security forces soon after independence in the early 1980s, known as Operation Gukurahundi (Shona for “the first rains of the season which wash away all the chaff”) resulted in the deaths of an estimated 20,000 Ndebele. And, in the years since, the people of Matabeleland have continued to be marginalised.

The tendency, therefore, among the Ndebele people of the region, has been to look south, where they have found jobs waiting for them in South Africa’s mines. It is an emigration that has been going on for decades – well before Zimbabwe’s independence. Huge numbers of people made the great trek to South Africa during the apartheid years, providing what was seen as cheap labour but paid enough to enable them to buy homes in their native Rhodesia.

As a result, Zimbabwe’s southern regions are virtual annexes of South Africa, with locals embracing everything from South Africa’s street lingo to its music and dress codes. They have even adopted the South African rand as their own “legal tender”.

Since the early years of Zimbabwe’s economic decline, the steady stream of emigrants has become a flood, with millions of skilled and unskilled nationals fleeing economic hardship in what was once Southern Africa’s second largest economy.

They sought jobs and earned a living that enabled them to feed whole extended families. A new culture, known as omalayitsha, developed, whereby young men transported groceries and other goods back home in South African-registered vehicles and became the pride of their region.

These vehicles, laden with a variety of goods, may have become a permanent part of the social landscape of Matabeleland but could also have been one of the sparks that lit the flames of xenophobic anger in South Africa. Among the complaints raised by the angry South Africans who turned on their immigrant neighbours were that foreign nationals were responsible for the increase in the price of commodities in local shops.

While appalled South Africans reacted with shock to the scenes of bloodshed and looting that filled their television screens and newspaper pages during two weeks of mayhem, some outsiders were less surprised.

In a press release condemning the xenophobic attacks, the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, noted that there had been sporadic attacks on foreigners in South Africa for months before the outbreak of mass violence in May.

Rights activists in Matabeleland who have championed the cause of the Ndebele also believe the attacks on non-South Africans living in South Africa’s poorest communities were not totally unexpected.

Qhubekani Dube, an activist with local pressure group Ibhetshu Likazulu, which, among other things, seeks compensation for the Gukurahundi atrocities, says the mass exodus to South Africa had always carried with it the seeds of a possible backlash.

While not defending the actions of the killers, he believed their anger was understandable in the context of their own economic survival.

“These people [South Africans] are suffering from the failings of their own government,” said Dube.

According to a Bulawayo writer and historian who asked not to be named, “It is no surprise that Zimbabweans have been caught up in the mayhem in South Africa … the South Africans accuse them of being happy to work for low wages.”

The lynching of foreigners has been attributed to South Africa’s failure to distribute resources equitably, which has resulted in widespread poverty despite promises from the post-apartheid government that the social and economic injustices of the past would be reversed.

Meanwhile, while desperate displaced Zimbabweans queue in South Africa for transport to take them home, according to Dube the attacks have not put a halt to the flow of their equally desperate compatriots still looking to their southern neighbour as a refuge from the searing poverty of their homeland. They see the attacks as a temporary setback and are just biding their time before they go back to try again.

Joseph Nhlanhla is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.