Beggars are driven by hunger to flee Zimbabwe

Zinhle Mapumulo

Zinhle Mapumulo

They stand in pairs and steadily approach cars as they stop at an intersection, normally at a robot in suburban Johannesburg.

One carries a white cane. He is blind. His partner holds his hand and a tin with the other.

They cut a forlorn sight as they slowly walk across the road and gently thrust the tin towards the driver. All they are asking for is spare change - a few coins.

These are Zimbabwean blind beggars.

A Sowetan investigation found that these beggars may be in South Africa either as legitimate immigrants or illegally.

But the fact is both categories of these Zimbabwean nationals are fleeing an economic meltdown that is ravaging their country and where hunger is the order of the day.

For Shylate Madhabuya, 38, begging on the streets of Johannesburg has put more than a smile on her face.

She is now able to support her family back home and still make ends meet on foreign soil.

Madhabuya, who lost her sight after falling ill, begs at the Park Central Mall at the Noord Street taxi rank in the city centre. She makes between R50 and R180 a day - depending on what day of the week or month it is.

On a quiet day during the week, Madhabuya usually makes about R50. On weekends the amount doubles and usually triples at month end.

It is easy to understand why the mother of two is happy in Mzansi. She makes about R2000 a month, which is 70 percent more than what a local security guard earns.

An average salary for a security guard is R1200 a month.

"Begging in South Africa pays us a lot more than when we beg at home, where one hardly makes enough money to buy food, which is another reason why I decided to come here.

"Leaving my family behind was the hardest thing, but I had no choice. If I continued begging in Zimbabwe I would have died of hunger," says Madhabuya.

Madhabuya comes from Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe. She came to South Africa legally in May on a 30-day visa. She lives in a flat in Chatam Court in Joubert Park with other blind beggars.

"I miss my family very much. I do go back home whenever my visa expires. I take food and clothes for my two children and mother, who is looking after them. If I am unable to travel that month, I buy groceries and send them by courier," says Madhabuya, with her face breaking into a smile.

Asked how she lost her sight, Madhabuya says she was not born blind.

"As a young woman, like many blind people of my age in Zimbabwe then, I suffered from a disease called onchocerciasis which is commonly known as river blindness. I was already married and had two children at the time. My eyes started itching, an infection developed and I had them surgically removed.

"To deal with the trauma of being blind I started going to the Jairos Jiri Disabled Rehabilitation and Training Centre in Harare.

"At the centre I learned how to make cane furniture and beadwork. We were given incentives every month as the centre sold the products to the public.

"Jairos Jiri was eventually closed down a few years ago. Many people were left with nothing and had to resort to begging," she says.

Seeing that begging was not paying the bills, Madhabuya followed the thousands of Zimbabweans who were emigrating to South Africa. When she arrived in Johannesburg she was introduced to a man called Moses Claulura, who was to be her "leader".

Claulura welcomed her and her three-year-old grandson Takudza Gapara with open arms. He offered them a place to stay for R250 a month. He even assigned her a helper, Fortunate, to escort her when she goes out to beg on the streets.

"There are about 15 of us in our flat. We all pay the rent to our leader, Claulura, who is also blind. He is very nice. When I am not going home he organises a car to deliver food and clothes to our families.

"We pay R100 for the delivery, which is cheaper than taking the stuff home ourselves. The owner of the car brings back a letter from home as proof," she explains.

Together with her helper, Madhabuya counts the money at the end of each day. She pays Fortunate between R30 and R50 a day, depending on how much she has made.

She insists that the rest of the money is kept by the helper and not the leader.

"We only give our leader money for rent and groceries. The rest is kept by our helpers. We know they won't rob us because they are aware how much we need the money," says Madhabuya.

Another blind beggar, Priscilla Sibanyoni, makes between R30 and R100 a day. She begs around the city centre with her 15-month-old son strapped to her back. She also lives at Chatam Court.

Begging on the streets of Johannesburg may sound lucrative for these disabled Zimbabweans, but they have been driven to flee their country, a free state, by hunger.