Zimbabweans in South Africa


A few days ago, I received this WhatsApp message from one of my neighbours in our small townhouse complex, “Fanuel is back and looking totally emaciated. Please would you be able to pop some money in an envelope and drop at # 8 or #9. No name. Whatever you can spare. It is the season of giving.” A few minutes later, this response arrived from Unit #7, “I have given him groceries, cooked food and a little cash already.”


Our Complex



Who is this Fanuel and why does he evoke such caring responses?  We live in a small townhouse complex of 18 units. There are two gardeners hired by the complex—both come from the same village in Zimbabwe, east of Bulawayo, and are, in fact, cousins. They are from the Ndebele tribe and the elder of the two, Cephas has been living in Joburg for 34 years, well before democracy.  I suspect that Cephas left the country because of Mugabe’s massacre of about 20,000 Ndebele from 1983-87 although he has never said as much.


But in a country with 90% unemployment currently, one can see why millions of Zimbabweans live and work in South Africa, sending money home to support their families.


Back to Fanuel. Like most people from Zim, they are lucky of they can get home once a year to see their spouses and families. Fanuel was very excited when I spoke with him in July as he was heading home for the month of August when his children were on their annual school holiday. His departure was delayed for two weeks when one of his other gardening clients headed off on her own holiday, neglecting to pay Fanuel prior to her departure.  He waited for two weeks for her return to get paid so he could start the long journey home by bus.  A month passed and he did not return. More weeks went by and no Fanuel. Cephas told me that while in Zim, Fanuel discovered that some of their cattle had been stolen.  Cattle is one’s wealth in countries like Zimbabwe and Botswana and Fanuel could not return without trying to track down the stolen beasts.


Fanuel was away so long that another gardener, Soft (yes, that’s his real name) from Malawi was hired.  I understood that we could wait no longer but felt badly for Fanuel, a lovely guy who resembles a young Thabo Mbeki.  Then I heard from Cephus that Fanuel was returning just prior to Cephus departing for Zim to spend Christmas with his family. I saw him for the first time and was struck by just how thin he was, yet when I asked about his wife and family, he broke out a huge smile and told me told me how well they all were doing and how great it had been to spend time with them again.


This is a Christmas story after all and it does have the happy ending with all of us stepping up to help Fanuel get back on his feet. The residents of our complex are a wonderful mix of races and religions and it does remind one that there is kindness here in the wealthiest part of Africa where people are often aggressive, full of entitlement and prone to flash their wealth.


And, to end on the happiest of notes, Fanuel did find his cattle and got his job back. It all just took a little longer than he had hoped.

Books in South Africa

South Africa’s Secret Love Affair….

Living in suburban Joburg, I try to take advantage of anything in walking distance of our house like the hair salon, locksmith and hardware store.  My finest discovery, though, is a Charity Shop that supports the Wits Hospice. It’s a frequently visited place, so the turnover is high, but the finds are great. Just today, I bought a small solid wood 1950’s end table in excellent shape for 100 Rand ($10 CDN). Whenever I have hesitated on an item and then returned to buy it, it is always gone. So, why did I hesitate on the set of 10 etched crystal champagne coupes today?? The joy of shopping there is that I can buy things that are useful for our four year stay and then return them all to the shop when we leave.

There is a good book section at the back where everything is the equivalent of one Canadian dollar.  Gorgeous Donna Hay cookbook, $1. They thoughtfully provide old stools so you can sit and browse. I was there today and discovered South Africa’s best kept secret– they are big readers of Canadian authors!  So many of them are there on the shelves :  Miriam Toews, Anne Michaels, Heather O’Neill, Margaret Atwood, Nino Ricci and more whose names I’ve forgotten on the walk home.  I picked up Lori Lansens, The Wife’s Tale, $1.  Now we know finally what people are doing behind the high walls and electric fences of suburban Joburg— curling up with a Canadian!


South African Bureaucracy

Third Time Lucky- NOT!

I applied for a Work Permit in South Africa three times. I have been rejected three times.

Here is my tale which opens in Toronto in December 2016 where I began the process.

My first two permit applications had to be made in person at the South African Consulate in Toronto. My rejection was based on their belief that I could not work in SA as a Sole Proprietor even though I provided documents from SARS (South African Revenue Agency) saying that this is completely legitimate.

When I indicated that I had been able to work as a Sole Proprietor in my previous sojourn in SA, the tables turned on me. I was asked, “How did I obtain this permit???” The polite Canadian replied, “I applied for it and was given the permit.” This raised many questions including a strong inference that bribery had been involved. Although these South Africans work in Canada, they clearly do not understand how Canadians operate!

The lack of knowledge on the part of the SA official or her mis-use of it drove me to tears of frustration and the official coldly told me where there was a receptacle for my used kleenexes. And the SA Consulate, Toronto, is an office so efficiently run that I had to wake the receptionist who was sound asleep at his desk in order to leave the office! No wonder they all work behind bullet proof glass…….

However, the SA official in Toronto did offer me a two year Residency Visa on the spot (normal processing time, 4-6 weeks) to get rid of me. On the second rejection, I accepted the Residency Visa. What is so completely maddening is the arbitrariness of it all. It is the luck of the draw of whom one deals with. I, unfortunately, ended up with the same cranky official on both visits. Appreciate your Canadian bureaucracy. It functions well and fairly.

After these two rejections, I was assured by a private South Africa Immigration Agency that I work with that I could apply for the Work Permit in Joburg once I landed in SA which I did. After waiting almost 12 weeks, I was rejected again on two grounds: proposing to work as a Sole Proprietor and not having registered with SARS even though I has provided proof of the latter.

After this third rejection, the private Immigration Agency was thrilled to learn that I would soon be in Cape Town where they said, “They understand what a Sole Proprietor is.”  They would book an appointment for me during my stay in Cape Town with VFS who handles intake of all applications of this sort.  I could feel success within my reach.

And they tried. But the VFS computer system has been in a complete meltdown for almost two weeks and one can only book online. As of this writing, the VFS system remains down….this does not give me confidence about the process…..Living and working abroad is not as much fun as travelling abroad.

But let me leave you on a happy note. Here I am in the Drakensberg while on holiday with Glen last month.  The country’s bureaucracy may be totally screwed up, but it is one heck of a beautiful place!Rob, with a view of the Drakensberg




Life in Johannesburg


Each Wednesday morning about 8, Lucy, our domestic worker, arrives trudging into our house lugging two stuffed shopping bags. Having a “home helper” is one of the luxuries we can afford while living in South Africa where there is an official unemployment rate of 26.6% and one third of the population living on less than R800 per month (about $80 CDN).


This week, I asked Lucy what time she leaves her house in Soweto to get to our place about 8am. I was stunned when she replied’ “5:15″, but ever cheerful, she added that it only takes about 2 hours to get home. Soweto is an hour’s drive from where we live, but when one has to queue for buses and transfer several times to get here, the journey expands to two to three hours each way. Thousands of workers make this same commute daily into Joburg.


Lucy used to work for Glen’s daughter, Eve. Prior to Eve’s departure with her family to take up permanent residency in Canada, she begged us to take on Lucy. At that time, I didn’t know their backstory.


When Lucy had worked for us for only a few weeks, I mentioned to her the good news that Eve had gotten a very good job in Toronto. Lucy clapped her hands and said she had been praying for her. All I kept thinking is that if anyone was in need of prayers, it would be Lucy, not Eve the wonder woman. Lucy is a single mom to three daughters ranging from ages 9 to 20 as well as a niece who lives with them.  By working three days a week as a domestic, she supports them all.  Those huge shopping bags that I mentioned: Lucy carries a supply of chips and other snacks with her that she sells on the buses to commuters on her way to and from work. What determination! As I am constantly reminded, African women are incredibly strong. If women hold up half the sky, then African women must sustain more than half of Africa.


Lucy is a deeply religious woman, thin as a stick, although she proudly tells me now that things have improved so much for her, she thanks God that she is gaining weight. She is a member of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) the largest church in South Africa with millions of members.  The male members are easy to identify as they wear a military style cap and both men and women wear a plain metal star pinned to a piece of green cloth on their clothing. Lucy always arrives with her star pinned to her jacket.


The most powerful moment with Lucy came when we were again talking about Eve as I often show her photos of Joshua, Eve’s son, now age 1.  Out of the blue Lucy told me and I quote “I was living in a trash bin until Eve saved me.” And then she burst into sobs and continued to tell me that her life was so incredibly hard until Eve hired her and helped her to get other work, so she could finally have a small income. Only then did I understand why Eve was so adamant that we hire her. Lucy thanks God every day for her blessings and I have no doubt that Eve is never forgotten in her prayers.





Joburg Fantasy

It has been said that the fantasy never quite matches in the reality. Well, not in this case!

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I have been wanting to set up studio in our place here in Joburg in a coverted carport attached to our house. With the donation of a large table from my lovely step-daughter, Kathy, and her husband, Gareth, the fantasy is fulfilled! And better than I imagined! Here in the breezy light-filled space I can play around with creative projects to my heart’s content.  The glass doors open fully, so in the summer I can have a wall of air and light.  First project underway—creating stains from leftover paint samples for some wood plates I picked up for next to nothing at my new fav store, Mr. Price (the crazy thing about the store is that the founder’s name really is “Mr. Price”!).

When you visit, you’ll find them hanging somewhere in our house where we have so much more room than in Toronto. We fear we are ruined for returning to our little place on Marchmount Road. Meanwhile, the fantasy has been fulfilled!



The Midlands Meander

Glen and I are back from a week’s holiday that started in the Midlands, in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, about 2 hours west-ish of Durban. It’s an area that was heavily colonized by the English and Scots in the 19th century the legacy of which still remains with polo fields, an abundance of prep schools and thatched roof inns that look as if they were air-lifted straight out of the English countryside.


We rented a cottage on a farm where the main house echoed of faded colonial glory but retained a restrained elegance. Although we were self-catering, we opted for them to prepare our dinner the night of our arrival. Walking into the red-walled dining room filled with a massive table, cabinets of silver and English bone china and roaring fire flanked by two gigantic elephant tusks made us feel like we had walked into some 19th century English baronial manse.  Dinner was amazingly good and we were pleased we had pre-ordered food from the house chef, Ruth, to heat up other nights. Glen commented that the only thing missing was that we should have been seated at either end of the long dining table just like in the movies!


One goes to the Midlands, an area of rolling hills, to do “The Midlands Meander” as it’s an area full of artisans from cheesemakers to potters to shoemakers. One of the most unique is Ardmore Ceramics. I tend to prefer the more “earthly” style of pottery, but Ardmore has gone absolutely baroque working with local Africans and encouraging them to take the work in their own creative direction. One of the most interesting aspects of this company is the division of labour: one either makes the pots or decorates them. Both are monumental tasks given the complexity of the work.

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The most moving place to visit as one meanders the Midlands is the Mandela Capture Site: the very spot where Mandela was arrested on August 5th, 1962, on a tip provided by the CIA. The capture eventually leading to his 26 years of imprisonment on Robben Island. Without this monument, I would not have known about what had happened on this non-descript stretch of road in Howick. But to stand there, almost 55 years to the day of the capture, gave me a feeling similar to what I get I when I walk through a cemetery—I may not know the people buried there but I felt but I feel the presence of the place. That day, I felt connected to Mandela and the power of what had happened on that site.


In order to view the sculpture, one follows the “Long Walk to Freedom” that positions one correctly to see the portrait of Mandela in the assemblage of jagged pieces of metal. When viewed from the wrong direction (see photo below) the image doesn’t exist. The genius of the artwork honours the genius of the man.