Three Mkhalipi brothers describe every day of their lives in South Africa as a struggle. But even in the midst of a recent swell in xenophobic violence, these Malawian nationals say they’d rather face danger here than hunger at home.
Last month, a mob in the coastal city of Durban attacked a group of largely undocumented Malawians, killing at least two people. It’s part of a continuous ebb and flow of anti-migrant violence in a nation widely seen as a beacon for intra-African migration.
The latest census estimates up to 100,000 Malawians live here. Many say a lack of opportunities at home gave them no choice but to seek greener pastures in South Africa.
The oldest brother, Kenneth, has been here for nearly a year, and says he gets two days off every month. The soft-spoken 32-year-old maize and peanut farmer, who works as a gardener, pockets about $200 a month, and says he sends almost all of it home to his wife and two children.
His brothers, Emmanuel and David, share a squalid flophouse in an impoverished Johannesburg township, and find gardening work and odd jobs where they can. David, who is 24, arrived less than a week ago, as the violence was still dominating headlines.
“I fear it,” he said. “I fear for my life.”
But his eldest brother says they have no choice.
No jobs in Malawi
“There are no jobs in Malawi,” Kenneth Mkhalipi said. “We’re just farming to find maybe money, fund this year, then we’re going to get money next year. So, it’s a problem for us to find money. That’s why we’re coming here.”
He says South Africans, who face a 26 percent unemployment rate, haven’t exactly been welcoming since he arrived, and have liberally shared their anti-foreigner views.
“Ah, you take our job here.'” he said. “‘On our own, we don’t have jobs, why do you? You are working here; you are enjoying here…All foreigners, we don’t like all foreigners here,’ they say.”
The deadly attack in Durban has only raised tensions. South Africa’s government has taken steps to react to the surge in anti-foreigner violence. The nation’s foreign minister met with African ambassadors this week to chart a way forward.
Not about crime
Human rights campaigners dispute the government’s explanation that recent assaults are simply criminal elements attacking vulnerable people.
Tigere Chagutah, a southern Africa campaigner for rights group Amnesty International, said xenophobic violence has surged.
“In the last few weeks,” he added, “we’ve again seen a flaring up of xenophobic violence in South Africa, something we’ve gotten used to seeing particularly at a time like this, such as in the run-up to elections, when political leaders, traditional leaders tend to use inflammatory and such language to whip up xenophobic sentiment amongst the people of South Africa.”
Malawi’s government says it will repatriate more than 100 citizens affected by the Durban violence who wish to return home.
But if the Mkhalipi family is any indication, the violence isn’t deterring immigration.
And, despite the attacks, middle brother Emmanuel Mkhalipi is urging their youngest brother, who is just 18, to join them once he finishes school.
“I’m going to tell my brother, this is South Africa,” said 25-year-old Emmanuel, who lives in the Alexandra township, which this week saw violent protests over the government’s failure to provide basic services. “You must be careful, because this is Africa.”
The brothers say they shrug off the dangers and try to stay positive. Just a week ago, Kenneth Mkhalipi said he was chased through central Johannesburg by three men, who stole his bag and phone. But he remains upbeat.
A wide smile spread across his face as he described his plan for his next day off, in two weeks.
“I’ll go see my brothers,” he said.