The young mother crossed the surging Limpopo River, the water up to her neck, like cruel hands trying to drag her under. Other women traveling with her were terrified, screaming, “We’re going to die!”
Ruvarashe Chibura concentrated all her strength on the little bundle she held high in the air: her 15-month-old baby, Cynthia.
“I never cried. I had my baby over my head,” she says now of that desperate crossing from her native Zimbabwe to South Africa. “I was afraid that Cynthia would be swept away.”
But it wasn’t until two years later that her little girl was swept away, this time by police and social workers in a country she had hoped would prove a refuge from the ordeals of her homeland.
Chibura and dozens of other unemployed illegal immigrants from crisis-ridden Zimbabwe have seen their children placed in state institutions. Their crime: begging at traffic lights with their babies at their sides.
For a Zimbabwean immigrant with no visa or papers, living illegally in a shabby city-owned building, South Africa’s child welfare bureaucracy has proved as implacable as the river that nearly took her life three years ago. Chibura’s daughter was taken into state care late last year, and now she says, despairingly, “she doesn’t even remember that I’m her mother.”
The government says its main concern is the best interests of the children. And even the mothers acknowledge that sitting by the road in traffic fumes in Johannesburg’s desolate winter chill is a dismal environment for a baby.
“It’s not good,” says Memory Konjiwa, another young Zimbabwean mother whose child was taken into care.
But for the women, it’s a difficult and lengthy process to get their babies back, because social workers and judges require proof that they are living in suitable, permanent housing, the very thing that most jobless Zimbabwean immigrants lack. They are told they will get their children back once they find a job, a nearly impossible task in a country where unemployment is estimated at 40%.
Simon Zwane, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Development, confirms that women must have jobs and housing before they can recover their babies, to prove they are capable of caring for them.
“We have taken babies into places of safety until parents can prove they can look after their babies, they have fixed places of abode and they have partners or they have found employment and they will not be on the streets with babies,” he says.
Konjiwa, 26, spends her days remembering. Her 2-year-old son, Joe, is growing up fast without her in an institution far from the squalid building where she lives. She too carried her child across the Limpopo River.
“I can’t survive without my baby,” she croaks miserably. “I miss him more than anything.”
Zwane says some women use their babies to beg. But Konjiwa and Chibura say they cannot feed their children without begging, let along afford child care while they seek money.
As many as 2 million Zimbabweans have flooded into South Africa in recent years looking for work after fleeing their country’s economic collapse and political violence. They find they are not especially welcome, particularly in townships where xenophobic violence in 2008 saw machete-wielding mobs storm through, beating up Zimbabweans and other migrants, burning some to death.
Konjiwa, who left her older son, 4, in Zimbabwe with her mother, says passing drivers shout abuse, telling them to get out of South Africa or to get a job. Many shout “Kwere-kwere,” an abusive term in South Africa for foreigners.
It would be unbearably bleak but for the coins dropped like pearls by some drivers, or the food and clothes that others donate.
“Everyone shouts at you, ‘Find a job, find a job!’ You feel shame that people are shouting at you. I just want money for my children. The fact that I don’t have an ID or passport makes it hard to get a job because no one will trust you,” Konjiwa says.
In October, police arrested her and another Zimbabwean beggar woman with their babies at traffic lights in the upscale suburb of Bryanston.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” she says. “When I realized it was serious, I was so agitated. They just grabbed the babies by force and the babies were crying.”
Konjiwa went to court to try to get her child back, but the judge told her she wouldn’t get him until she had decent housing.
She lives in dire conditions, squatting in a freezing city building, with hundreds of other Zimbabwean refugees.
“We don’t regard that as an appropriate environment to bring up children,” says Zwane, the government spokesman. Authorities have accused some of the women of “renting out” their children to other beggars.
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh of Lawyers for Human Rights said that although roadside begging was against a child’s interests, the situation was complex because unemployed Zimbabwean women often lack the means to earn money for food, and can’t afford child care.
But she said the requirement that women find housing and jobs before recovering their children was unfair. “It seems like people are being penalized for being poor and for not having a home at whatever standards the social workers are holding them up to.”
Chibura has been ordered to attend classes on how to look after her daughter. But she says she can’t afford them.
“It’s so painful,” Chibura says. “I think about her every day.”