Zimbabwean migrants who fled a wave of anti-foreigner violence in neighbouring South Africa arrived home Wednesday to the same bleak economic prospects that sent them abroad in the first place.
Visibly dejected as they stepped out of buses at Harare’s main terminus, young working men and women with babies on their backs said their dreams had been destroyed by the attacks which killed seven people and displaced thousands.
“I don’t know what to do next,” said Wonder Nyamutowa, who worked as a construction worker in Durban, a major port city in Africa’s most developed economy.
“I went to South Africa after being retrenched in 2012. I am a breadwinner and I could manage to send money back to my family but I won’t go back.”
Nyamutowa was among hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans who migrated to neighbouring South Africa when their country’s economy went into free fall in the aftermath of a campaign of violent land invasions in the early 2000s.
Thirty-year-old Wesley Jokonya did not even get a taste of the better life that so many of his compatriots seek ‘down south’ — he was forced to flee before finding work.
“I had been in Durban for one-and-a-half months looking for a job,” he said.
“I had not yet found a job when the trouble started. Jobs are not easy to come by here (in Zimbabwe). I don’t know where to start.”
Jokonya made his reluctant journey home on one of the first two buses carrying 85 people from South Africa. Four other buses crossed the border at the same time, and more were expected.
The transport was provided by the government and the International Organization for Migration. The returnees received food packs containing beans, cooking oil and cornmeal as well as blankets.
A small crowd of angry Zimbabweans who had gathered at the bus depot cursed South Africa as an “ungrateful neighbour” as they comforted their compatriots.
Zimbabwe hosted South African exiles during the struggle to end the racist apartheid regime, which formally ended with South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
“It’s sad when a neighbour you once helped in a time of need turns against you,” said Gift Mbare, a local community leader.
Migrants from several African countries have been targeted in a wave of xenophobic violence that started in Durban three weeks ago and then spread to the commercial capital Johannesburg.
At least seven people have been killed in attacks by mobs accusing immigrants of stealing their jobs.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has expressed “shock and disgust” at the attacks.
An estimated one million Zimbabweans live in South Africa, making them the biggest community of foreign nationals in the country.
Hundreds of Malawians and Mozambicans have also returned home over the attacks.