Essay – In the late 1990s, Kiza Magendane and his uncle left their native country of Congo to start a new life elsewhere. Kiza ended up in the Netherlands, his uncle in South Africa. Nineteen years later they meet in Pretoria. 'Kiza, the South African dream does not exist.'
I have landed. After ten years of Europe, I set foot on the African continent again. The customs lady at Johannesburg airport wants to know everything about the reason for my visit. Patiently I show my travel document and the visa, which I received after a lot of effort at the South African embassy in The Hague. While my white fellow passengers are walking quietly, the customs officer subjects me to an interrogation that does not seem to end. Would it have been faster if I had a Dutch passport? Then suddenly there is the releasing phrase: 'Enjoy your stay, sir.'
My uncle Nick has been living in South Africa for almost fifteen years. My most tangible memories of him date back to 1998. I was about six years old and lived in Uvira, a city in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I remember the incessant sound of bullets. My uncle and I spent three days in a compound. Shortly after that bloody battle, our ways separated. He went south, I went north. In the nineteen years since then, I only spoke to my uncle once by telephone. That was in 2007. I had just arrived in the Netherlands as an asylum seeker and my uncle stressed that I had to do my best at school and better forget the situation in Congo. "First you have to help yourself before you can help others."
My uncle now runs three successful barber shops in Pretoria, I understand from my grandmother. I wonder how he and other Congolese migrants have succeeded in building their lives in the country known as the 'Europe of Black Africa'. Has he found the so-called South African dream? And what does that dream look like?
Am I going to recognize his face? At the arrival hall of the airport I look in all directions. 'Aah ... oncle, naku reconnaitre management. Utazi changer ata ', I say in my mother tongue Kifuliru mixed with poor French,'aah ... uncle, I recognized you right away. You have not changed a bit'. We hug, but not too long. It feels as if we had spoken to each other a day earlier. He wears blue jeans and a simple black T-shirt, both from the Diesel brand. His head is beginning to lose some hair, but the rest of his body does not believe that he is already 45. He is a bit like Idris Elba, the possible new James Bond.
Some economists believe that there is a link between the geographical location of a country and technological progress and prosperity growth. There is plenty to say about that theory, but it comes to my mind when I see my uncle again. Because peace and security are not mainly in 'the north'? And is it a coincidence that developing countries are mainly in 'the south'? Congo, the country where my uncle and I were born, lies on the equator and is rich in rainforest, the largest after the Amazon.
The DRC’s source of wealth is its source of conflict
The country suffers from a resource curse: it is rich in raw materials such as tungsten, tin, tantalum and cobalt, necessary for the production of electrical appliances and cars, but that source of wealth is also a source of conflict. Over the past twenty years, a complicated and devastating war has killed more than five million Congolese people, the deadliest war since World War II.
A look at the past helps to understand Congo's tragedy. Shortly after independence in 1960, the Belgian and American governments decided to kill Patrice Lumumba, the first elected prime minister of the country. The Cold War was raging and the West wanted to get rid of rebel leaders like Lumumba and Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran. In their place they installed puppets. Congo got Mobutu Sese Seko, a brutal despot who, like the Belgian king Leopold II, used the land as his personal property. The economy collapsed and the basic infrastructure fell apart. Ever since the authorities have failed to achieve peace and progress.
My grandmother and I fled Congo shortly after the 1998 war and ended up in an isolated but peaceful refugee camp in neighbouring Tanzania. We slept on mats on the floor, in houses made of mud and in plastic tents of the United Nations. But because my grandmother was threatened, we had to go into hiding in several other refugee camps. After a few months we were granted asylum in the Netherlands through a UN refugee program. It is pure luck that I ended up in a country that in almost all respects forms a contrast with my chaotic homeland. Where Congo is known as a failed state, the Netherlands is a country that is 'completed'.
We sit on white armchairs in the living room of Nick’s apartment in downtown Pretoria, a fifteen minute walk from the government’s Union Buildings. My uncle tells about his time in Dar es Salaam. He was about the age I am now, in his mid-twenties, when he decided to leave the refugee camp and, without property and family, move to the Tanzanian capital, hoping to build a life. There he educated himself in braiding women's hair, an activity that many men in Tanzania are ashamed of. But Nick made it his profession. In a few years, he grew into a popular braider, with rich and famous women as regular customers. He soon became the owner of a hair salon and employed dozens of employees.
"I never worked alone," my uncle says, nodding at the television screen. We are looking at a documentary about the innovative assembly line at Henry Ford's car factories. "Actually, I applied the assembly line without me knowing it." In his hair salon in Dar es Salaam, the customer was welcomed by one employee, her hair washed by another, braided by my uncle or one of his colleagues, while another staff member did her nails, after which she finally was able to pay someone else at the cash desk.
"The hair salon business was in our hands," says Nick. “We made sure that the Tanzanians could make themselves beautiful. But the Tanzanian government was ungrateful. We could not get a residence permit or ID, which meant we could not buy a house.” Building a stable life was impossible. That is why in 2004 he finally decided to move from Dar es Salaam to South Africa. He was, just like almost every Congolese migrant I spoke to, looking for better opportunities.
"Fifteen years ago, I arrived in Durban. I did not have my own house. During the day I worked in someone else’s hair salon, in the evening I had to run my own things,” my uncle says while we have lunch in his living room. The menu includes dry fish from the Congolese Lake Tanganyika and cassava leaves. Nick lives with his wife in the apartment, but they rarely eat alone. Every afternoon people from the Congolese community join to have lunch and exchange stories. These joint lunch bring back memories to me. In the refugee camp sometimes ten people came to eat a warm lunch with my grandmother at noon. Like mother, like son, I can now see.
"One night I was alone in a pub in Durban," my uncle continues, "when I heard someone calling my name. It turned out to be a distant relative. You know, blood relatives recognize each other immediately, even though they have not seen each other for years. He immediately said that I could stay with him until I found something. His house was like a hotel, we shared the living room with five men. "In the meantime, fourteen years later, my uncle runs his own 'hotel': when there are emergencies, Congolese newcomers are allowed to stay in his guest and living room. For free.
‘Speak in tongues is code for why don’t you pay me a bribe?’
One evening I am driving with Nick and a friend of his in Nick's grey Nissan to one of the hairdressing salons when we are stopped by two policemen. The window goes down. My uncle speaks a local South African language with the cops. 'Speak in tongue, my brother', one of the cops says. It’s his only English sentence. And it’s a code language for: why don’t you pay me a bribe? "Serious, I cannot speak in tongue right now, sir. Next time we will turn the light on,” my uncle responds with a learned South African accent. The two policemen give up and disappear.
"These people do not stop," the friend from the back seat says. "If you do not know how they work, they scare you unnecessarily," my uncle adds. Then they share anecdotes about their first contact with the South African police and how much money they have lost out of fear. They know by now exactly when you should or should not give money.
'Nick Beauty Salon' is big on the façade above the glass doors. The hairdresser is located in a migrant neighbourhood in the centre of Pretoria. Young men hang around in the street, some of them have a stall where they sell mobile credit, roasted corn and meat. When we walk into the hair salon, the employees look deeply focussed on their work - braiding, cutting, manicure. Nick introduces me as his nephew from Europe. “Welcome home”, says a man with a bottle of beer in my mother tongue, “they do as if we are strangers, but this is Africa. This is our ground.” My uncle asks him to go out; no drink inside is the rule. The man walks quietly to the veranda behind the salon, where a bunch of unemployed men sip their beers.
In the hairdressing salon all kinds of languages intermingle. The employees come from different African countries. The youngest beautician is eighteen, my uncle is the oldest. His employees work from ten o'clock in the morning until eleven o'clock in the evening, seven days a week. "I send a hundred dollars a month to my mother in Congo," says a barber of my age, while putting a blond tuft in my black beard. "You cannot abandon your family."
The veranda at the back of the salon has been renamed 'the office'. Congolese meet here to drink beer and share nostalgic stories. But they also complain about South Africans. "They treat us like animals," the man who was sent away with his beer moans. Some of the beer drinkers at 'the office' are sans papiers or undocumented people. I offer them drinks and roasted turkey meat from a Congolese food stall across the road. I wonder what my life would look like if I had not been granted asylum in the Netherlands but in South Africa. Would I, like my peers, cut hair and paint beards or would I have ended up like these tipsy souls in a self-proclaimed office?
South Africa is a relatively rich and stable country in a poor region. This is why migrants continue to arrive despite the chance of being locked up or expelled. Just as in the rest of the world, in recent years migration legislation has been tightened up. As a result, it has become more difficult for migrants at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder to apply for asylum. My uncle did that in 2004 and now has a residence permit. But the people who have come after him are often less fortunate.
At six o'clock in the morning, the first row in front of the red, metal door of the registration centre of the South African Department of Home Affairs is forming. I have arrived in Mesina, a small town on the northern border with Zimbabwe, to see with my own eyes what migrants have to endure in order to get a residence permit. There are remarkably many Congolese who speak the same language as I do. They come from the region where I was born 26 years ago. Some of them have slept in open air tonight to make sure that they are in line on time. Others have spent the night in run down hotels without a mosquito net or air conditioning, but most of them have been staying in a local church for a few months. When a female official enters the building, a Congolese woman wishes her a good morning. "Why are you actually greeting me?" The official responds. "I'm not your girlfriend!"
As soon as the red gates open, two new rows are created in the courtyard: in one the migrants who want to apply for asylum assemble, in the other the migrants who have come from all corners of South Africa to wait in the blazing sun all day, hoping that their residence permit will be stamped. A ritual to be repeated every six months; if they do not show up they get a fine. It is their only hope for a legal stay. The only chance to work, open a bank account, rent a house.
"I cannot say that we had to run for our lives. We came to South Africa for economic opportunities," says 26-year-old Frank. Together with a friend, he decided to go to South Africa more than a year ago. The year before he was still a student of informatics and communication at a university in Eastern Congo, but when his father suddenly became unemployed, he was forced to abort his education. With an average annual income of 750 dollars per head of the population, Congo is one of the poorest countries on earth. The tuition fee that Frank had to pay for his study is eight hundred dollars.
He wanted to start a business in Congo with the friend, but they did not see any perspective. So, they decided to look around. “We have looked everywhere, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda – eventually we opted for South Africa. There is plenty of work here, even street children get enough to eat.” After a one-and-a-half-month trip through Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, they finally ended up in Mesina eight months ago.
I speak to Frank and six other Congolese young people in an Ethiopian restaurant opposite the registration centre. If it was up to them, we'd better go a bit further into the centre to eat cornmeal (fufu) and chicken at a cheaper Zimbabwean street restaurant. But it is quieter here and it’s my turn; my euros are doing wonders everywhere. The young people in their twenties are all hoping to get a residence permit. Although many of them actually dream of a life in Europe or North America. More than once I am asked if I still know a way that can get them into Europe. Because even someone like my uncle, who did manage to get a residence permit, still lives in uncertainty in South Africa.
‘They say our ID’s are fake but we’re going to try again tomorrow’
Frank now works with a fake residence permit at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Durban, where his friend's sister lives. “It's going pretty well, but I always wonder: how can we stay in a foreign country while we do not have any papers? That is very dangerous. That's why I decided to come back to Mesina to see if I can get papers.” This afternoon his attempt failed. "They say our identity cards are fake, but we're just going to try again tomorrow." What frustrates him the most is that without those documents he cannot rent a house. “They need fingerprints, but I'm not registered anywhere in the system.”
There is a question that has been on my mind since the moment my uncle picked me up from the airport in his grey Nissan: how can such a successful entrepreneur have such a small, ugly car? Especially when I find out later that my uncle once had a luxury Mercedes. Know what? After a collision the police confiscated that car and despite all the attempts and the assistance of a lawyer my uncle never saw the Mercedes again or received any compensation. Because he has to be mobile for his work, he bought himself this functional Nissan.
That small grey car, I realize, is indicative of the lack of security for migrants in South Africa: you can just lose everything that you have built up. That makes many migrants that I have spoken nervous. "Kiza, the South African dream you're looking for, is a deception," my uncle told us when we made a walk to the government’s building. "That dream does not exist. It is a lie.”
By working hard Nick has ascended to the global middle class. At first glance he embodies the South African dream: he has a modern furnished apartment where he can follow the football matches of his favourite club Tottenham Hotspur on a full HD screen. He wears quality clothing from Diesel and can go on holiday if he wants, at least if he can get a visa. He lives a life that Frank and the other young people I spoke to at the border dream of: independent and prosperous.
But my uncle still feels uncertainty all the time, a life built on quicksand. Due to inflation, he recently had to close one of his hair salons. His Mercedes, which he had worked so hard for, has disappeared through a legally curbed system. Despite everything he has achieved, he feels trapped - he cannot move upward, build anything. Because which car enthusiast chooses to drive a small Nissan if he has the money for a luxury Mercedes Benz C500? Someone who stands still, against his own wish.
Meanwhile, the Nissan makes miles on the highway again. The conversation is about Black Panther, the movie - I tell them that I wrote a piece in which I argue that the Marvel-film is a form of escapism for black people. My uncle has a different opinion. He feels that there is nothing wrong with a little escapism, because without imagination you cannot build a future. "It is important to have a vision," he says. “You are in the Netherlands to learn that. You have studied, you cannot work with your hand or sell things in shops like us. No Kiza, you will soon have to sell your knowledge, your imagination.”
My uncle and I both left our homeland on the equator to start a new life elsewhere. He went south, I ended up in the north. In both cases it was a difficult road, we were both looked at and treated differently because we are 'migrants'. But there is a difference between us. I live in a country that has strong institutions and opportunities, he tries to build a life on quicksand. "And that does not work," he says. "Everything breaks down." However, like the other Congolese migrants I have spoken, he does not want to go back to Congo. "That is not an option," my uncle explains. For the time being you push on or you migrate again to another country. I would not be surprised if my uncle would swap the South African dream tomorrow for the Europe dream. Maybe he will then buy a new Mercedes.
Migrants in South Africa
There are hardly any reliable figures about the exact number of migrants in South Africa. According to the last census of the South African Statistical Office (Stats SA), the number of migrants (born abroad) decreased between 2011 and 2016, from 4.2 percent of the total population to 2.8. Stats SA says that more research is needed to explain this striking decline, but the agency already has a suspicion. 'The reduced number of immigrants in the 2016 census may indicate a deep-rooted fear of making the country of origin known to interviewers.'
That is not a crazy idea, given the xenophobic violence that took place a year before the census. In various parts of the country, shops and homes of migrants were set on fire. There were even deaths. Out of fear thousands of migrants left their homes and fled to refugee camps or returned to their native country.
One thing is clear: by far the majority of migrants come from the African continent (more than 75 percent) and a large part of them from the neighbouring region. According to the 2016 census, more than half a million inhabitants were born in neighbouring Zimbabwe and a small three hundred thousand in neighbouring Mozambique.
This essay was published on 17 October, 2018 in Dutch in De Groene Amsterdammer.