The woes of men who gather at ‘The Point’

A group of Zimbabwean men wait for work in Salt River.

To the 20 men who gather in Salt River each day, it has become known as “The Point”.

Their reason for performing the daily ritual near a petrol station at the bottom of Salt River Road is simple: while their efforts might come to nought, congregating at this bustling junction at least gives them an opportunity – however small – to get work.

Six years ago, Zimbabwean Oswald Kucherera was one of these men who have travelled thousands of kilometres to escape economic and political turmoil to forge a new life for themselves south of the border.

Mr Kucherera is one the lucky ones. After years of waiting desperately at The Point, hoping to be picked up for a few hours’ of labour, he was employed at Six Span Street, formerly the Democracy Centre, as a receptionist and general worker.

Recently, he self-published a memoir, The Exodus Down South, in which he tells of his arduous journey to South Africa, and the hardships his countrymen endure trying to earn a living wage.

“Fascinating stories were shared at The Point,” he writes.

“These were sad stories, but we celebrated the bravery of these people. We admired their courage.

“Some claimed to have held and wielded the most important and influential posts in their communities. They did not want to be identified with the weak or poor, so most of them claimed to have emigrated from big cities such as Bulawayo, Harare or Mutare.”

Prompted by the accounts in this stirring book, Mr Kucherera accompanied the Tatler to The Point, where he introduced us to some of the men waiting for a passing driver to stop and offer them a day’s work

Mike Makangae arrived in Cape Town in 2008, choosing to follow his brother to these shores.

“Things were just not stable back home,” he said. “I had a passport, so I was able to catch a bus to Johannesburg. Unfortunately, I had to wait two days before I could get the bus to Cape Town. That meant I had to sleep on the streets at Park Station. It is very dangerous there, but I was lucky in that I was not attacked.”

Since his arrival, he has lived in Philippi, but has had no opportunity to pursue his ambitions as an artist, for which he is trained. “If I want money, I have to wait with the others here, hoping I can get a construction or gardening job.

“I also do house painting and plumbing. If I don’t come here I will have nothing. I can’t just sit at home.”

Although he has lived in Philippi for almost a decade, he still feels “threatened” by the local community, despite numerous efforts to quell xenophobic attitudes.

“We are still not accepted. The local people think we always have money. So they will ask us for money, and we end up giving them what little we do have because we don’t want to be sworn at or attacked.”

Compatriot Malvern Sakutukwa, 36, wears a hardened expression. He has a sister in Mpumalanga.

“I was with her for six months, but there was no work there. I had a passport so I could come here easily, but there are others who don’t have passports who have had to cross crocodile-infested waters to run away from the poverty back home,” Mr Sakutukwa said.

“I attended university in Harare, and then I also worked for the Zimbabwean government for a while. I was actually doing a course to become a pharmacist, but things were so bad economically that I had to leave.”

Repeatedly mentioning that “things are tight”, he said he had no choice but to stand in the sun and rain in search of work.

“Some of the people who pick us up for work are nice, but some are not. Some of them exploit us. We ask R200 for a day’s work on a construction site, but then they will not pay once the work is done. Others will only pay half of what we agreed.”

Mr Sakutukwa said the men often had to help one another financially.

“We have to so we can survive. I think the South African government could help us by giving us the right papers so we can study and improve ourselves, so that we could get a good job. I don’t know why that hasn’t happened.”

One of the youngest of the group, 21-year-old Wanyness Rugube, said while it was “very difficult” to live in a foreign country, “it’s still better than Zimbabwe at the moment”.

Although the agriculture graduate was buoyed by the protest action recently seen against President Robert Mugabe’s regime, he doesn’t think he will be able to return home soon.

“There is no stability and no money there,” he said. “I also think we could be helped if the government could give us papers so we can go to school here. That will give us a chance to get a good job.”

Asked whether he had noticed any changes in the men’s stories since his time at The Point, Mr Kucherera said:

“Not really. The only difference now is that most of the men have passports, whereas when I was here hardly anyone did.

“Aside from that, nothing has changed. It is still the same struggle to get work. If I could say one thing to them, it’s that despite this fight they must remain nice to people. They should always be diplomatic, because, as I have written in the book, things can turn around by meeting the right people.”