Even in South Africa, stores are adorned this time of year with holly, tinsel, and fake snow. But the real sign here that it’s getting close to Christmas is when the immigrant-packed neighborhoods of Hillbrow, Berea, Yeoville, Braamfontein, and downtown Johannesburg itself start to empty out.
Thousands of Zimbabweans migrant annually from their jobs in South Africa to their homes in Zimbabwe, often bringing paychecks, gifts, and new children to meet their extended families back home at Christmastime.
This year, the Zimbabwe to which they return is likely to feel more prosperous than the one they left. A year or so of the Unity Government between President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party has seen an influx of investment, a drop in the 1 million percent inflation rate, and a certain degree of political freedom.
The big concern is how to get there. There is a shortage of buses due to an apparently heavier demand than in past years. Johannesburg’s Park Station has turned into a kind of squatter camp, with hundreds of Zimbabweans sleeping on sidewalks and doorways, awaking just in time to stand in line once more to queue up for bus tickets.
"Most buses have been booked a month ago, and we have a serious transport crisis to Zimbabwe,” says Derrick Makurumidze, who plans to return to Chitungwiza in Zimbabwe. “We have been here outside Park Station for two days now. But thank God, today [Friday] we are going home. We managed to get a bus, though it never looks road worthy."
Those who manage to get a ticket often find they are being overcharged. "Apart from experiencing transport shortage, bus operators are charging us R500 [about $90] just one way to Harare instead of the usual R250 [about $40],” says prospective passenger Shuvai Makahamadze. “Worse still, [bus operators] make a huge killing on luggage, where a 30-kg bag costs R80 [about $12.50] to R120 [about $20], depending on the comfort of buses."
Bus companies admit that prices are higher this time of year, but they defend their practices. One of the bus drivers, who requested not to be identified, said, "This is the only time of the year where bus operators make money. Failure to capitalize on such an opportunity which comes once a year would be unfortunate and regrettable.
"We have been struggling from January to November to get passengers traveling from Johannesburg to Harare, Bulawayo, or Mutare, but Christmastime presents us with such an opportunity," said the bus driver.
At Park Station and outside the informal drop-off and pick-up points in Braamfontein, this reporter found that most migrants were returning to Zimbabwe to sort out their South African passports and work permits. South Africa’s Home Affairs department set a Dec. 31 deadline for all Zimbabweans – estimated to number 2.5 million – to renew their asylum or work status, a deadline that will not be extended.
For weeks, many of these same Zimbabweans now queuing up at bus stations were sleeping in lines outside of Home Affairs, waiting for a chance to renew their asylum or work status. Now the line has simply shifted.
"I am not going home for Christmas, but to quickly submit my application for the passport,” says Remegio Ushe, a Zimbabwean living in Durban. “I can't imagine myself leaving South Africa, going back to work in Zimbabwe. The economy has not yet stabilized. I need at least two to three more years in Mzansi [South Africa]."
To meet the Dec. 31 deadline, Sox Chikohwero, chairman of the Zimbabwe Diaspora Civil Societies Organizations, says that the Home Affairs department will need to increase its staffing and the pace of its caseload. At present, he says, Home Affairs serves fewer than 500 cases per day.
At that rate, Home Affairs will serve 2,500 people by the end of the week, about 10,000 per month, and only 30,000 by Dec. 31, he says – a mere 1.2 percent of all Zimbabwean migrants here.