An African America?

She spent her childhood days cooking plastic pots full of mud and carrying dolls on her back. And some of her sunniest days found her at the local swimming pool, pitting herself against her friends in dusty races towards the bottom of their road. They grandly called these sprint marathons the Olympics.

Winnet Kuzvida enjoyed her life outside the classroom: she was percussion in the school choir and The Brownies girl scouts, and some of her most thrilling moments came during the school holidays when her father bought her a new dress, a pair of shoes, took her and her siblings to eat out or visit the airport, the Coca Cola building, the Great Zimbabwe. All of these things were unaffordable on an ordinary day.

Inside the classroom, however, joy was harder to court. Writing exams was difficult because she is a “slow thinker” and would often have to request for more time. This was portentous of the disaster her schooling career would become later on, damning her to a life of constant relocation that was helplessly subject to the vagaries of the job market. Kuzvida, a 42-year-old domestic worker born in Mutare just outside Harare, Zimbabwe and working in Brakpan, east of Johannesburg, never reached Ordinary Level (equivalent to matric grade). But her failings were not entirely her own fault. She grew up in a family of eight and the money her father earned had not been enough. Apart from her poor performance, her education was sacrificed so her brother could go to school.

“They think the ladies will get married,” Kuzvida explains. “So the guys will be given the opportunity to succeed through getting an education. It’s like a tradition.”

Issues back at home took their toll on Kuzvida’s performance in school. “At times I couldn’t concentrate on school because I started thinking of when I got home what’s going to happen next,” she said. Her father quarrelled over petty things. “He bullied and he was rude. He also used to say to my mother, ‘You like money like a harlot’ because she would constantly ask for it to run the household. He would beat her in front of us and we would cry. My mother had no peace in that house. He would also shout at us, for example, if we left the lights on. So you’d just have to go to sleep before he found something wrong.”

“Up until now it [still] haunts us,” says Kuzvida’s brother Timothy, 40. “Some of our failures emanated from him being that way. Not even a day could pass without us fighting at home, him fighting with my mother. You’re thinking, ‘What’s next?’ It’s the same issue all over again. It was really bad. I vividly remember.”

His sister’s experience with their father was such that she foreswore marriage and was convinced that all men were like her father. She vowed to herself that marriage would be the last resort to her economic freedom.

She desperately wished to escape her volatile home life to South Africa. When she confided in a friend she was advised against it: apartheid was rife. Blacks were not allowed in the area in which she worked, so she would be able to accommodate Kuzvida.

This was not the last time Kuzvida would fantasize about going to South Africa. In November of 2003 a family friend asked her if she would like to come to babysit her child. Though Kuzvida bore no objections and her parents agreed as long as she promised to return home, she was unable to go.

And ever larger loomed the tantalizing spectre of South Africa in her mind, a place seemingly widely seen by the broader African community as something of a Mecca, a place full of opportunity and ideas of freedom and possibilities for employment. An America in their own backyard. In spite of all the horrible things Kuzvida heard of it, particularly those to do with foreigners like her, Kuzvida was never keener to step on South African soil.

Even before the 2008 xenophobic attacks on African foreigners in South Africa there had been a strong anti-immigration sentiment, according to a 2001 survey by the Southern African Migration Project. A quarter of South Africans wanted an end to all immigration activity, and the growing resentment for non-nationals was nursed healthy by the media, which used words like “aliens” (which dehumanized foreigners), and described their immigration activity as coming in “waves,” “hordes” and “flooding” into the country as though they were describing a natural disaster.

The picture of the “Burning Man” showing a charred man on his knees on a road, alight in flames, his clothes dripping off his body in pieces of fire, was more gruesome than any natural disaster. It is estimated that more than 10% of the South African population are foreign migrants and many of them are Zimbabweans who fled economic collapse at home, according to the Mail & Guardian in a July 2010 article.

A friend of Kuzvida’s on the other side of the border organized a job for her. She journeyed to Roodeport and paid R1 500 for a seat on a bus headed for South Africa. It slipped under the cover of night towards the border and its passengers wore all black for maximum concealment. By then, she says, the South African border control was quite strict. Those in charge of the “cross borderers,” as border control would call them, instructed her to hide under the backseat of the bus while the five other passengers who had not paid the R1 500 were left to squeeze under the remaining seats, barely out of sight. The policemen climbed inside and searched the bus. Kuzvida was the only one hiding. When she grew tired in her uncomfortable position her leg poked out and she and her fellow passengers were hauled out of the bus and placed in cells. They were to be deported back to Zimbabwe.

“[In South Africa] they’re thinking I’m coming to work but I’m delayed. At home they’re saying she has gone to South Africa. I am in between.”

Irony of Poverty: Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Africa but poor economic decisions and lack of infrastructure led to runaway inflation.
Irony of Poverty: Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Africa but poor economic decisions and lack of infrastructure led to runaway inflation.

The following morning they were returned to Beitbridge. Kuzvida was reluctant to return home. Some of the people with whom she was deported suggested they cross the river into Limpopo. All Kuzvida need do was produce R200.

She and her fellow deportees joined a larger group of two hundred people at the river who also wished to find their way into South Africa. They were divided into smaller groups and camped out in concealment near the river. At midnight they were woken up and told to remove any belongings that would encumber their journey through the water. Kuzvida had to take off her skirt. She tied her blanket, handbag, a few clothes and her Bible around her waist.

The first group descended into the river. Kuzvida’s group then followed, wading through water that reached their chests (early January brought much rain), slipping one foot around the other for a distance of five kilometres. “If you slip, you’re gone,” Kuzvida says. “My heart was beating; it was either life or death. But I wanted to go. I prayed, ‘Lord, what I am doing is wrong. But I need to go to South Africa – I cannot lose that job.’ Things weren’t fine at home – they relied on me for most of their necessities… I had to be brave and go.”

The group proceeded as one person held tightly onto the waist of the person in front of them as they dragged their feet across the river floor. Should one lift their foot too high, the river would overpower one and sweep them off. A man in Kuzvida’s group slipped and was taken by the river. There had been rumours of crocodiles stalking the waters downstream. When people screamed the leaders in charge of the operation warned that they would alert the soldiers patrolling around the area. Kuzvida wanted out. “I would die here and no one would know. But I crossed the first and then second section. Everyone was destined to go to South Africa.”

They walked peacefully without further incident until the water level rose considerably. Kuzvida could cope no longer: she was short and the water reached her neck. She tried lifting her head. Suitcases swam down the river. When she felt herself lose power and shrieked, “I’m dying!” another man helped her untie the blanket. She quickly grabbed her handbag and Bible before they were swept away with her blanket. Everyone was screaming. “But when you’re in a tough situation God helps you in a way you won’t understand just then. No one was swept by the water, but our belongings had to go.”

Come Hell or High Water: The Limpopo River, which Kuzvida crossed to enter South Africa in search for a job. Tough economic conditions in Zimbabwe have caused a wave of nationals into its southern neighbour looking for jobs.
Come Hell or High Water: The Limpopo River, which Kuzvida crossed to enter South Africa in search for a job. Tough economic conditions in Zimbabwe have caused a wave of nationals into its southern neighbour looking for jobs.

The groups made it across the river and rested. They were later divided according to destinations: Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Limpopo. They had to pay an extra R200. They began a nightlong trek. No child cried and not a single cough interrupted the eerie silence but the crunch of footsteps along the ground. They had to pay a further R100 when the leaders threatened to call the cops to deport them.

But after daylight struck and Kuzvida bordered a taxi to Johannesburg, policemen stopped her taxi and requested to see their green books and passports. It was patent that several passengers, including her, were wet. They were deported and taken to the same cells they had left behind. Kuzvida did not have enough money to return home, and she was desperate to get away from her fellow deportees, all of whom were now men. “What if they rape me?” she thought. She hustled homeward and returned to the border a few weeks later in a second successful attempt.

“God is great,” proclaims Kuzvida, who is now an asylum seeker.

It is hard to gather from Kuzvida’s CV if she had a better life on the other side of Breitbridge. She endured a nomadic search for permanent employment that took her from Hillbrow, Johannesburg to Thohoyandou, Limpopo in eight years. She is unable to hold down a job longer than a few months due to the abuse she suffers at the hands of her employers, be them Monte Casino or “madams,” who are also often reluctant to allow her to observe the Sabbath. But Kuzvida endured and fought to keep it holy. The madams either heard or fabricated rumours that she was dragging their names in the mud, gave excuses not to adjust her salary; or, knowing she was anaemic, boiled food until it lost all its ingredients. She claims black South Africans tend to abuse her and pay less because she is a foreigner.

Many foreigners who come to South African primarily because of civil war or economic decline back at home struggle as much as unskilled South Africans do finding a job, especially if they do not have exceptional qualifications. Dannylla Ndanda, 38, is an asylum seeker works at a hair salon in Proclamation Hill, west of the Pretoria CBD. In a catch-22 scenario, she has a teaching diploma she acquired in the DRC which she used to teach in a primary school for three years. But she cannot apply for permanent residence in South Africa because that requires she have a permanent work offer, which she cannot secure because the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) cannot assess her qualifications since she does not have the necessary documentation, and even if she were to have them, her high-school-earned diploma.

But despite experience in South Africa Kuzvida’s certain life in her home country would be ghastly. She says Zimbabwe’s unity government has made it cumbersome for companies to stay afloat or South African companies to expand into the country and hire workers. And those who do have jobs are earning peanuts and spend most of their income on transport.

“It’s still tough. If the unity government is (dissolved) and something new comes out of it, I think things will change. But if the unity government of Zimbabwe is killing everyone.”

The unity government was formed in 2009 in a political compromise between then president Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Although the IMF in 2010 reported that the country had enjoyed two consecutive years of “buoyant economic growth after a decade of economic decline” following the formation of the unity government, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found the humanitarian situation to have improved since 2009 but “conditions remain precarious for many people”.

Even Kuzvida’s most precious possession, her eighteen-year-old daughter, came in horrible fashion. When she found herself around men after being deported back to Zimbabwe in 2003 she feared she would be raped. Seven years later when she occupied a rented Mamelodi house until her friend, who owned the house, returned and a man tried to knock the door down to get to her on two occasions, she was afraid he wanted to rape her. She did not sleep but prayed, “Lord, if I am going to die in this country I am going to get a job first.”

In 1992 her lover had raped her in order to impregnate her after hearing from his cousin, who was Kuzvida’s confidante, that Kuzvida intended to leave him because she was disillusioned with the three-and-a-half-year relationship: she felt it was going nowhere and she was wasting her time. “I was not prepared for it. I never agreed to it. From then on I was disturbed; I had then that belief that all men were like that. We were in love but I was not in it with the intention of having a child then.”

So was Kuzvida’s fear of men, which had been born from her abusive father, crystallized. She named her daughter Oprah because she wants her to be “a somebody” who will be even just a fraction as successful as her namesake. “I’m hoping and praying for a better life for her. I don’t want her to suffer as I did,” she says.

The Power in a Name: Kuzvida's story shares many parallels with that of Terrari Trent, whom talk show host Oprah Winfrey declared her all-time favourite guest because of her story of triumph in sexist and poverty-stricken rural Zimbabwe. Kuzvida, also Zimbabwean and working as a domestic worker, named her daughter Oprah because she wants a better life for her.
The Power in a Name: Kuzvida’s story shares many parallels with that of Terrari Trent, whom talk show host Oprah Winfrey declared her all-time favourite guest because of her story of triumph in sexist and poverty-stricken rural Zimbabwe. Kuzvida, also Zimbabwean and working as a domestic worker, named her daughter Oprah because she wants a better life for her.

Oprah lives with her grandfather in rural Zimbabwe, a country from which one Terari Trent hails. She lived a similar story to Kuzvida. Her family was unable to pay for both her and her brother’s education, so she stayed home while her brother advanced. She had always had a dream of going to America, just has Kuzvida had dreamt of going to South Africa. All Trent wanted was an education. In her late teens she crossed the Atlantic Ocean, earned her doctorate in agriculture and in 2009 walked out into a studio with rolling cameras and embraced one of the most famous and inspiring figures in the world: Oprah Winfrey. About two years later Oprah invited Trent back to her show and gave her $1-million to build a school in Zimbabwe.

Featured image “Creative Commons Randfontein Mine At Sunrise, Johannesburg” by Paul Saad is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Disclaimer: Paul Saad does not necessarily endorse me or my use of this image.

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