BEITBRIDGE: Running away from socio-economic challenges that befell Zimbabwe since the beginning of the millennium, most Zimbabweans landed in South Africa in search of greener pastures.
Many of them dared to cross the unfriendly Limpopo River, as documentation was not easy to get from home to facilitate smooth travel. Many died while trying to cross the flooded river discretely while others failed to escape the untamed crocodiles.
Pressured with the growing number of migrants from neighboring Zimbabwe, the South African government sought to regularize the stay of the immigrants through the issuance of permits.
Renamed from the 2009 Dispensation of Zimbabwean Permit (DZP) to the Zimbabwe Special (ZSP) Permit in 2014 and later Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP) in 2017, the South African government in 2021 announced that the ZEP system would not be renewed.
The courts have ruled the announcement null and void but is the judgement acceptable to South Africans?
If the worst happens, Zimbabwe is expecting to receive close to 180 000 immigrants, and the government says it is preparing for an influx of returning citizens.
Expected numbers will be bigger than those received during the Covid-19-induced lockdown though challenges such as shortage of food, ablution facilities, and other basics in government-run holding centers were rife.
This excludes irregular immigrants who cross the border consisting of the majority of Zimbabweans who stay and work in South Africa.
Even though the government promised to facilitate smooth travel for returning citizens, the question of whether receiving communities will be tolerant of diverse cultural beliefs and practices landing first in their communities remains unanswered.
A classic example of a different cultural mixture can be drawn from the initial cultural disputes that took place in Chingwizi as victims of the Tokwe-Mukosi flooding disaster were displaced to other communities.
“We later discovered what we only need to understand is that we shared different backgrounds. We adopted their tradition, food, dress, and many other things while they did the same. Now we are a blended peaceful community,” said Gamuchirai Nhamo, one of the many displaced.
The responsibility to respond
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), in collaboration with Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) Masvingo and Musina Legal Aid Office (MLAO) have since initiated a cultural exchange program in a bid to create positive awareness of the diversity of cultures.
“The project is empowering people on the move particularly displaced persons, migrants, returnees, and also communities themselves. We believe communities should be empowered to receive and reintegrate with people that will be coming back home,” said CCJP-Masvingo Coordinator, Simon Parwaringira.
“…it sets the groundwork for the return of Zimbabweans who have been staying in South Africa after the expiry of their permits. Boarder communities welcome these people and for that role, they should be capacitated to accept and appreciate cultural diversity. In essence, returnees should be celebrated than be seen as a point of divergence and stigma,” added AFSC Country Representative, Nthabiseng Nkomo.
“Being part of the project is a passion to us because we are protecting human rights. All people are born with human rights and thereby deserve dignity and respect. The fact that people are on the move does not, therefore, take away the fact that they are human so they deserve our support,” further said MLAO Director, Jacob Matakanye.
The organisations have incorporated strategic partners who recommended more strategies as a way to curb cultural conflicts within receiving communities while ensuring efficiency in assisting the migrants.
“We live in a world of unprecedented human mobility as there are more than 281 million international migrants most of whom have moved in search of greener pastures. You may wish to know that Africa hosts an estimated 7,9% of these 281 million migrants.
“Most of these migrants originate from Southern Africa region so initiating such a program is not by mere coincidence but it will contribute very much in building the much-needed social cohesion in migration,” said International Organisation for Migration representative, Nhamo Mleya.
“These returnees should be assisted with transport to go where ever they want to go in Zimbabwe. Previous situations taught us that most of them get stuck in Beitbridge as they have no money for transport. Through such situations, they become desperate and end up engaging in crime. As a result, they tarnish every migrant’s image and communities end up stigmatising them; a situation we wish to see the program combat,” added Red Cross representative, Stephen Ngwenya.
The government of Zimbabwe hailed the program being spearheaded by the three organisations and promised to complement them in the best way possible so that the work they are doing is effective.
“We have been made to believe that civic work is counter our agendas as politicians but through this program, I have experienced otherwise. I would however encourage receiving communities and any other communities in Zimbabwe that similarities between South Africa and Zimbabwe cannot be overemphasised and thereby I encourage tolerance towards the returning locals. I will also appreciate the project with the best support I can give in my capacity, said Beitbridge East Member of Parliament Albert Nguluvhe.
“As we expect an estimated 180 000 returnees, through initiation of such a program I can safely say they are not vulnerable because returnees now have primary support from the government. A safe landing for returnees is indeed a priority to government programming,” added a Beitbridge Deputy District Development Coordinator, Jason Mugodzwa.
The National Arts Council of Zimbabwe (NAC) is also of the vision that culture exchange programs should be broadened for the benefit of greater Zimbabwe.
“This program is good and not only to accommodate returning citizens. It should however be expanded to benefit greater Zimbabwe towards uniting us as one big family,” said Beitbridge NAC Coordinator, Percy Vela.
Present during the cultural exchange program held in Beitbridge from 20 to 23 March 2023 Chief Sithaudze emphasised that what separates South Africa and Zimbabwe is the Limpopo River and as such, people should tolerate and assist each during the migration process set for June 2023.
The cultural exchange festival was characterised by four days of traditional food, dress, sport, artifacts, drama, and music exchange.
The import of cultural diversity
The world is filled with people who have different beliefs, religions, traditions, and ways of living.
Migration changes the culture of migrants and, through cultural diffusion, it changes cultures in the places where migrants end up.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), countries with greater cultural diversity tend to have higher economic growth rates.
Specifically, countries with the highest cultural diversity scores had an average annual growth rate of 2.4%, compared to 1.8% for countries with lower scores.