Since arriving in Cape Town five years ago, Erina Manyene has survived by doing laundry and cleaning other people’s homes.
Manyene (28) left her young son in the care of her husband in Zimbabwe, forded the crocodile-infested Limpopo River and crawled under thick layers of barbed wire to enter South Africa at an unauthorised crossing point.
International aid agencies believe that between 1,2 and three million Zimbabweans have fled the country in the last decade to escape political repression and spreading poverty.
Many of the reluctant migrants are highly trained professionals — teachers, lawyers, journalists, engineers, doctors and nurses — who are forced to downsize their trades in their adopted countries to cobble together a frugal life on the fringes of the main economy.
For most women, informal trading, waiting on tables, commercial sex work and domestic work offer an escape route out of a life of penury.
The Zimbabwean women beef up an expanding legion of domestic workers from the economic backwaters of Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique spread across South Africa, the industrial leader of the Southern African Development Community.
The country’s sturdy manufacturing base and relatively high wages act as a magnet to millions of unemployed people in the region, those fleeing war, and the after-effects of ill-conceived
economic austerity measures.
Traditionally, domestic work provides an entry point into the South African job market for new arrivals and is a crucial area of employment for both in-country and transnational female migrant workers.
Government agency Statistics South Africa indicates that 42% of black women from the Sadc region who lived in Johannesburg in 2001 worked in private households.
Findings of a study by the Domestic Workers’ Research Project at the University of the Western Cape confirm that migrant domestic workers still suffer arduous working conditions for low wages and are often sequestered behind their employers’ high walls, cut off from family and friends for inordinately long periods.
While some of their South African counterparts have made notable headway towards claiming labour rights such as minimum conditions of employment, minimum wages and leave pay, most migrant domestic workers are denied access to trade unions.
“You see, here in South Africa, they underrate us, isolate us in our workplace. They want to pay us low wages. Maybe they will say R50 a day, because they know Zimbabweans are stranded and desperate people,” Manyene said.
She said they ended up agreeing to low pay as they were suffering in Zimbabwe, but that made it impossible to send food back to their children.
Isolation, low levels of education, exploitative wages and a largely inflexible immigration law regime limit migrant domestic workers’ access to health services.
“Isolation in our country is still a main problem where we (domestic workers) are isolated from families. The regulations don’t allow us to bring anyone on the premises. I felt sometimes like I was in a prison cell,” said Hester Stephens, president of the South African Domestic Workers’ and Allied Workers’ Union.
Evidently, domestic workers are not eligible for the various categories of work permits and would struggle to obtain permanent residence status, which is earned after more than five years of continuous legal residency in South Africa.
In practice, the only basis on which non-South Africans who do not possess the requisite “qualifications or skills and experience” can obtain the right to work in the country is if they qualify for refugee status “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted by reason of . . . race, tribe, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group”.
“When you go to Home Affairs it is very difficult to get that paper,” said a migrant domestic worker.
“We just go there and there’ll be a queue, they will just be pushing and pushing. I think the minister was there at one stage and she saw for herself what is happening there . . . if you don’t have that asylum document, employers manipulate us because of that, they know we don’t have any papers here, so they can give you any amount they want.”
Yet these hurdles have failed to dissuade migrants from countries which share traditional and cultural ties and borders with South Africa from streaming into the country to seek work.
In 2008, South Africa was shocked by the violence that swept the country when locals attacked black people from other African countries.
The makwerekwere (a disparaging term for foreigners), the attackers alleged, were “stealing” locals’ jobs, women, houses and were a drain on scarce resources.
Following a fresh outbreak of xenophobic violence in October 2009 — when an estimated 2 000 Zimbabwean migrant farm workers were forced out of their shacks at De Doorns by bands of locals — a councillor ruling African National Congress for the area was fingered for fanning the attacks.
Isolated incidents of violence against black Africans have been reported countrywide since the end of the football World Cup in July.
The government has vehemently refused to acknowledge that the violence was inspired by xenophobia, arguing instead that it was the handiwork of common criminals.
This is cold comfort though for migrants like Grace Matenhese who was chased out of her corrugated iron and board shack along with her infant child in the dead of night at De Doorns.
Like the majority of aspiring African migrants seeking low-skilled work, Matenhese failed at the first hurdle in her attempts to acquire a work permit. Consequently, she lives under the perpetual threat of deportation, violence and exploitation because of her status as an “illegal foreigner”.