Plight of illegal Zim migrants in SA

Plight of illegal Zim migrants in SA

Nyathi Bongani and Ncube Njabulo

Review & Mail Correspondents
Whereas overwhelming cases of the novel COVID-19 virus have been recorded in the U.S., Europe, and China; the virus has just started manifesting rapidly across the African continent.

According to the African Centres for Disease Control and Preventions Africa had 44 483 and 1 801 as of Monday, May 5.

South Africa had recorded 6,783 cases.

In a bid to contain and curb the spread of the virus, most African countries have resorted to lockdowns, ranging from 2-3 weeks, and even stretching beyond, depending on the infectious rates within the various African States.

In March 2020, South Africa launched a phase 5, 21-days lockdown, which was later extended by two weeks, to end on the 30th of April, afterwhich, phase 4 lockdown would kick in.

In this article, we argue that the COVID-19 lockdown has had adverse effects on Zimbabwean nationals residing in South Africa. We observe that while the fight against the COVID-19, is a laudatory endeavour by the South African government, there is, however, a tendency to overlook the socio-economic consequences it has wrought on illegal migrants, particularly the Zimbabwean undocumented immigrants. Further, we also highlight the sensitive issue of undocumented, HIV positive Zimbabwean migrants, who have been negatively impacted by the lockdown .


The majority of undocumented Zimbabweans residing in South Africa eke out a living through odd jobs, such as: vending, working in restaurants and teaching in private colleges.

As the lockdown materialized and took effect in South Africa, most Zimbabweans, particularly the undocumented, have found themselves without sources of income.

“I do not know where I will get money to pay rent and buy food this month,” mused Sithembile, (not her real name) a Zimbabwean teacher working at a private school in the Johannesburg CBD (over the phone interview).

Tafadzwa, (not his real name) a vendor in the streets of Johannesburg, is habouring intentions of going back home (Zimbabwe) as he has lost the means of a livelihood.

While the South African government has come up with measures to alleviate the hardships induced by COVID-19 lockdown, most of these measures aim at cushioning citizens.

The plight of migrants, particularly the undocumented Zimbabweans has been neglected, to the extent they have to fend for themselves, compelling them to resort to whatever means at their disposal, be it legal or otherwise.


On the face of it, these are the generic hardships Zimbabweans are currently confronting under the lockdown conditions in South Africa, but there is a grim side to this lockdown ,hardly noticeable, even eluding the attention of commentators and human rights activists.

Deign we point it out at this juncture, and without any fear of equivocation that before the lockdown, there admittedly was a booming ‘illicit’ trade in trafficking medication, videlicet, ARV drugs, through cross boarder transporters famously known as ‘Omalaisha’.

Most Zimbabwean illegal immigrants have, for quite some time, been relying on the ‘Malaishas’ to bring them their ARVs shipments from Zimbabwean clinics or NGOs distributing these for free in Zimbabwe.

Most of the undocumented Zimbabweans living with HIV, as per the interviews we conducted, claimed that they couldn’t access ARVs in South African Health care institutions since they are not legally documented.

It appears as if there is particular opprobrium reserved for undocumented Zimbabweans at public health institutions, which opprobrium has been heightened by xenophobic sentiments that have, in the recent past been whipped up and directed against foreigners per se and undocumented migrants, particularly Zimbabweans.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are alleged cases of discrimination in South African hospitals against foreigners especially those from Zimbabwe.

According to Melody: (not her real name) “I went to Johannesburg general hospital to ask for ARVs they did not only turn me back without them (sic) but I was also humiliated and mocked by the nurses there.”

She tearfully added, “I used to rely on Malaishas to bring my medication (ARVs) now with this lockdown I can’t.

“If I don’t go home AIDS will kill me before Covid 19,” she lamented (over the phone interview).

Her story captures the predicament of thousands of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants living with HIV who rely on ARVS from Zimbabwe.
The South African Constitution Article 27 and various international legal instruments (ICESCR art 12, ICRMW art 28) gurantee the rights of immigrants including illegal immigrants to health care without discrimination.

However ,the South African immigration Act is mute on the rights of immigrants to health care, a factor which has led to immigrants being excluded from healthcare services.

This situation was highlighted by the South African Human Rights Commission in 2018. It is our considered view that if health care is not extended to immigrants in South Africa, whether documented or undocumented there is most certainly going to be a spike in the number of covid 19 infections and consequently casualties of egregious proportions, something the South African government should guard against. – R&M

•Writers are independent researchers

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