Adding to the richness of the city

2013-05-24 00:00

SANDWICHED between Pietermaritz and Langalibalele streets, the famous lanes of Pietermaritzburg have become home for dozens of businesses run by people from other African countries.

Hair salons are a dime a dozen and dress designers, shoe repairmen and money changers all trade here, more or less out of sight. The accents heard are heavily flavoured and many who have settled here in the quiet city have torrid tales of how they escaped war zones to get here by walking through four countries, or by being smuggled in the back of a truck for three days without food or water.

For many of them, papers are an issue and they are waiting for their refugee status to be approved. Some have temporary residence and they are biding their time until they get an official residence permit. Unlikely friendships are forged between foreigners who depend on this community for help in tough times. Their support network of family and friends is very far away.

Celine (38) came to Pietermaritzburg seven years ago from the eastern Congo, where war was raging and her family was in constant danger. Her parents were killed by rebels and her husband came to South Africa to seek asylum. She followed him a year later and managed to find passage in a truck that was crammed to capacity with other people, all of them desperate to escape the savagery of their home country.

Her youngest child was only 18 months old. All they had was what they could carry and they had no papers. A year after her arrival, her husband, who had managed to find work as a security guard, was shot dead by a criminal. She was on her own with four children. Today, she runs one of the many hair salons in Harwin’s Arcade and says every day is a struggle to get by.

Richard Ngobi (29) followed his brother from Uganda to Pietermaritzburg five years ago and their first IT business was a mere stall opposite a nightclub down a urine- drenched alley. They had one computer and a head for business, and soon they were able to move into a shop that was the size of a cupboard. Offering to fix computers and teach computer skills, the brothers now have four stores spread across the Midlands, offering Internet and business services.

Ngobi says he has focused on the business and nothing else. “We are prepared to suffer and we work hard, and then we can make it happen. We have watched businesses come and go, but we survive because we are determined.” He says not all foreigners are criminals and those who turn to crime are the ones who are poorly educated.

A gold exchange on one corner looks decidedly dodgy and we scurry past. Drug deals have been known to happen in this part and a metro cop car, with a barking dog inside, cruises past. Beautiful dresses made from shwe shwe cloth are on display, with a decidedly exotic twist.

Joseph G. (35) from Cameroon is studying for his electrician’s certificate while working as a shoe repairman. He has a pile of shoes that he mends while chatting to people walking past. He has a reputation for good work. “I am very good with my hands and so that is how I survive. I use my many skills.”

He says he likes South Africa, but finds that people can be aggressive without reason. He also says that local women are not treated well by their men. “Men here treat their women like a tissue they can throw away. They have no respect for women. In our culture we do not like this.”

The foreigners live in the city in flats and prefer to avoid living in the townships for fear that they will be targeted by local people. The threat of xenophobia is ever-present, although there is relative safety in numbers.

Joseph is a philosopher, too, and he spoke at Africa Day last year to suggest ways the local government could make life easier for foreigners. He says South Africans need to open their eyes to the fact that they are part of a bigger continent.


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