The quandary of the Zimbabwean in the diaspora, and the pain of a life of despondency

Despondence of diasporas is structural and systemic while also political as well as highly regulated by economy and society


By Alois Baleni


Urban or city life is an illusion and imaginary of fast paced social mobility. Almost everyone grows up with an imagination and dream of being in the city and living good.

In South Africa for example, Johannesburg is iconic and deemed a ‘world-class African city’, the ‘city of gold’ and the economic hub.

Its iconic branding does not escape the imagination of many as a destination for both locals and the broader African Diaspora.

Both its iconic branding and world-class imagination is in reality for many who come under this imaginary indeed a fiction in a making.

The gold is nowhere to be found for many particularly Diasporas.

The search for gold in varied ways lands many into various experiences in the truly ‘City of no gold’. Some join the underground battle in the mine dumps spread all over the country in search of the hidden gold.

They have acquired the name Zamazamas literally referring to those who scavenge for survival.

Past documentaries have revealed the reality of the underground life for the Zamazamas including conflicts, tensions and fights for underground survival. They spend long days or months underground.

On the other hand in non-fictitious ways but as realities of existential conditions women turn into the streets for commercial sex work.

Sex in its natural form and by its natural standards is joyful and something humankind explores for pleasure and also out of love.

Commercial sex work is neither pleasure nor joy

Commercial sex work is neither pleasure nor joy. It is serious down town business particularly in the hive of the promised city of gold.

There are moments where some of the commercial sex industry workers are raided by police in Johannesburg and probably other parts of the country.

Some reports reveal that police also at times help themselves to the forbidden fruit under the disguise of scrupulous raids. These unscrupulous police raids are serious human rights violations equal to rape.

The acts of commercial sex workers are framed by law as prostitution and at times for fear of being arrested and fined some despondent women give in to sexual harassment and abuse by some of the police.

When attention is shifted away from the commercial sex industry to the construction industry another pattern of despondence emerges. Many young many bring various trades into the broader construction industry.

They acquire menial jobs of hard labour for their survival. I recall seeing many suburbs around the CBD of the City of Gold upgrading and getting state of the art designs behind the hands of the Diasporas over time.

When one cares to listen or at least observe this industry has its own share of experiences. Firstly open construction vehicles can be spotted each morning ferrying a team of construction labourers to various sites.

Secondly a closer account into such incidents tends to reveal some hidden form of racism. It is usual a white foreman or the owner of the contractor ferrying the labourers in an open van or at least in a load bin covered by a canopy while in the company of their bulldog in the front passenger seat.

It only takes a Diaspora with privilege and choice to turn down such job opportunities in a city of no easy gold.

Bulldog in the front passenger seat

The bulldog in the front passenger seat’s animal rights supersedes those of the poor Diaspora labourers usually of African descent at the back of the construction vehicles.

These bulldogs usually have medical aid, breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the contrary African Diasporas have hard labour and sweat including the leisure of sitting at the back of the construction vehicles as their fate and means of survival.

Those who eventually grow to also run their own little construction services are not spared from the menace of police.

Vehicles ferrying Diasporas to and from work seem to be easily identifiable. Police usually pounce on them. Diasporas working in restaurants are also at the disposal of patrolling police at night.

There is nothing untoward with the work of the police during these patrols. This only adds to the complexities of the nature, experience and life of Diasporas in the search of gold and its imagined golden opportunities.

Ramon Grosfoguel

It is not possible to explore and mention experiences of Diasporas in all different sectors of industry by way of emphasizing their despondence.

Perhaps a little highlight of their general experiences in society from a South African perspective. Scholar Ramon Grosfoguel’s insight about immigrant assimilation processes using the USA context is important.

Grosfoguel argues that it takes some time for generations of immigrants to be fully assimilated into the economy and political arena from that context.

Similarly the Diasporas explore different ways to try and get integrated into the South African society as quickly as possible. Language and culture are some of the resources that are mobilized.

Generally some members of the Diaspora that can easily adapt to the local languages and general cultural norms as well as practices negotiate their ways into integration and assimilation.

Tswana, Swati and Zulu speaking Diasporas easily integrate and negotiate their ways into society and can easily get away with it even with the police.


However it must not be understated that society at times through public institutions such as health facilities, police stations and education institutions can be hostile. This can be argued that these sectors general deepen the structures of despondence.

Most Diasporas particularly those illegal in the country do not have the energy to report or open cases with the police for fear of possible turnaround of things into their own legal statuses at the time.

Equally some pregnant women cannot willingly access prenatal services while undocumented. There are not free and some claim being turned away or subjected to different levels of harassment forcing them to delay accessing prenatal services.

The same goes with schooling opportunities it becomes difficult for some particularly in main stream public schools without necessary legal documentation.

There different layers and experiences of integration and assimilation. Organisations such as African Diaspora Forum are at the forefront of trying to lobby government in various areas of Diaspora challenges.


If it was all smooth sailing and a seamless integration and assimilation process for Diasporas such an organisation will have no reason for existence.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is one such body that also seeks to deal with matters that heighten the despondence of these Diasporas who are refugees.

The economy and society are the structures that regulate despondence of Diasporas making Diasporas politicised subjects. The rights of Diasporas are limited making it very challenging to rise above despondence.

They are generally not part of the mainstream politics yet their fate so depends of the politics of the day.

The despondence of Diasporas is structural and systemic while also political as well as highly regulated by economy and society.


Alois S Baleni is a Research Fellow in Society, Work and Politics Institute/African Centre for Migration and Society, Wits University. He is a former Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Award Visiting Scholar The University of Winnipeg



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