At noon, the periodic pop of golf balls being blasted off their tees punctuates the serenity in Irene. Enoch Phiri, a gardener from Malawi, is about to have his lunch of bread and tea. Apart from the caw and flutter of hadedas, the air is thick with the dull drone of diesel generators occasioned by Eskom’s disruptive load shedding schedule.
Still, this plush part of Pretoria is a universe away from Diepsloot, where in January police reportedly arrested more than 100 undocumented migrants after days of unrest over crime in the township. But even here, Phiri cautions, there’s a kind of migrant worker stigma and soft xenophobia lurking beneath the surface. “Sometimes people don’t act their true feelings towards you in a violent way. But you can see they don’t like you and for no reason,” he says.
As an unskilled labourer scratching out a living doing odd jobs in the suburbs, Phiri fits the profile of who South Africans are referring to when they say “they are taking our jobs”. The 37-year-old father of three came to South Africa in 2013 and has since found a way to earn a steady living.
His older brother Victor had come to work in South Africa years earlier. When Phiri arrived, he rented a shack near the Pinedene train station in Centurion. The single-room shack, plus access to a communal toilet and water tap cost him R750 per month. His brother supported him financially for the first few months, when he was without a job and still finding his footing. Victor lives in Gezina near Pretoria North, where he works.
“I was staying by myself with other guys from Malawi who were also renting there. But it was not safe in Pinedene. Especially because people, if they know you are not from South Africa, they can break into your place when you are not there,” he remembers, biting his lower lip and nodding to emphasise his point. Soon enough, he got a job and moved into a flat in Olifantsfontein.
Phiri’s first job was with Eco Bin, a company that had won the tender to make and install rubbish bins along the streets of Pretoria. “It was a good job, but the money was bad. They paid me R1 500 per month. My rent in my new place is now R1 400 per month. I left them,” he says. The company helped him get a work permit, which has made his stay in the country less anxious than many migrants who do not have the correct documents.
In 2013, when Phiri boarded the bus from Malawi to chase Pretoria’s promise of plenty, he was joining generations of his countrymen who had made that journey south to find work. Historically, the relatively higher wages South Africa’s mines promised attracted Malawian migrant labourers. Since the decline of mining at the end of the 1980s, many continued to migrate in search of informal work and trade jobs.
Because Malawi is further away, the journey is longer and more expensive for Malawians than migrant workers from countries that share a border with South Africa. It is prohibitively more difficult for the extremely impoverished to save enough money to migrate. A large proportion of those who do have a salaried position in Malawi before coming to South Africa. They migrate because of the perceived greater availability of a wider variety of jobs, and wages are reputed to be more generous.
According to pan-African non-partisan research network Afrobarometer, almost half (45%) of Malawians say they have considered emigration. Two-thirds (65%) of potential emigrants say they would probably move to South Africa. Only one in five (20%) would leave the continent altogether. But among Malawians with post-secondary education qualifications, half say they would head for Europe (25%) or North America (25%). It is estimated that there are about 216 515 people from Malawi resident in South Africa.
Phiri was not always looking to leave his home, though. He was forced to migrate by the family tobacco farm not doing well. “We have 12 hectare of land outside Lilongwe that we used to farm for tobacco and other crops. The crop was not fetching enough money. We needed more money to live. That’s why I decided to follow my older brother and come to find work here,” he says.
The small-scale agricultural industry in Malawi is very much connected with migrant worker networks to South Africa. According to a 2016 FinMark Trust report, “the link between remittances and increased productivity is particularly clear in agriculture, where cash remittances allow households to purchase a range of agricultural inputs, including ploughing implements, fertiliser, seeds and livestock vaccines, and by doing so supplement their remittance income with agricultural income.”
It is estimated that formal and informal remittances from migrants in South Africa add up to R477.4 million being sent home to Malawi annually. This is equivalent to about 22.3 billion Malawian kwacha.
Phiri does work for a number of households in Centurion and Irene. He charges R250 a day for gardening services. “I work for Mr Anton here at the golf estate on Monday and Tuesday. For him, I do the garden, cut the lawn, clean the yard and other things,” he says. On Wednesdays, he works at a house in Midstream. Thursdays, he works at yet another place.
Collectively, his various jobs add up to a monthly salary that is “better than the money at Eco Bin”. Phiri often takes on other small jobs over weekends to supplement his income. Part of the money he makes is sent home to his parents and children. In 2017, Phiri made plans for his wife to join him. She is a domestic worker.
“Many foreign guys leave their wives at home and maybe find a girlfriend in South Africa. I can’t do it like that,” he says. We laugh about migrants who are often accused of stealing women and jobs in South Africa. “Not me my friend, I have my own wife,” he chuckles.
Phiri gets up and gestures that he is returning to work. The generators have stopped humming and we celebrate that the electricity is back on.