What is it really like to be a foreigner in SA?
We sat down to chat to NETwork graduate Billy Mwema, 28, from the Democratic Republic of Congo about his experience of living in South Africa.
Why did you decide to move to South Africa?
I moved to Cape Town from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2006 with the hopes of continuing my studies. In the DRC, I often watched a television series on SA that showed students getting bursaries and going to university. They made it look so easy. Where I grew up, it was not easy to study. I was the eldest son of eight siblings and with that came the responsibility to provide for my family. I wanted to get a good job so that I could send money to my family and help put my brothers and sisters through school.
What was it like when you arrived?
I met lots of challenges. Seventy percent of what I thought it would be like was not the reality. I thought I would get the same opportunities as the students I’d seen on TV. I went to UCT and other colleges but it was tough to get a bursary. I had to go to the refugee centre to get asylum papers but for most bursaries, I needed to have South African citizenship in order to qualify.
Did you feel welcome?
Before I came here, I thought South Africans were welcoming, friendly and helpful people. I heard people speaking about the rainbow nation, and about how they welcome everyone. But at the pizza place where I worked while I was saving up to study, there was lots of jealousy. I didn’t feel welcomed by the other South Africans working there. They were like, ‘Why are you working here? This is our country.’
I remember one day while I was working I was told to strike because they wanted an increase in wages. I said I couldn’t because I had to pay my rent. I had no family to go to if I was kicked out. One of the South African guys took me aside and told me that if I didn’t strike I would be risking my life. He told me that they would beat me up. My only option was to stay away from work for the couple of days during the strike, but this meant I didn’t get paid.
It was a real shock to me. I felt unwelcome and threatened. The people who were striking were permanent employees. But as a foreigner I was only a contract worker. They could fire me at any time.
What have been some of the other challenges you’ve faced?
I want to study and get a job so that I can be independent and support my family but it has been very difficult to find a job. I studied a design course at Boston College and I received my diploma in office administration from a hospitality college but even with these qualifications I haven’t been able to find a job. When I apply they often ask if I can speak a South African language like Xhosa or Afrikaans.
Because of the political situation in my country, I brought my 17-year-old brother to South Africa to finish his high school but this means I have to pay for his school fees, accommodation and food. He’s been home for two weeks now while I’ve tried to come up with enough money to send him back to school. His principal has agreed that he can come back but he isn’t going to be able to graduate from Grade 9 with the rest of his class at the end of the year because he’s missed so many lessons.
I was also injured while I was working at an aluminium company. The tip of my thumb was almost severed off and I had to be rushed to hospital and have surgery. I spent a week in hospital but while I was recovering the company was liquidated and they were unable to pay my hospital fees. I am still getting phone calls from the hospital asking when the account is going to be paid. It’s very stressful.
Have you felt discriminated against as a foreigner in South Africa?
In terms of accommodation, we avoid living in the township because of the behaviour of South Africans. It’s not easy for a person like me to live in the township. Life is very risky there. I’ve had friends who have been robbed and beaten. But when it comes to ‘white’ areas where we want to get accommodation, it’s also very difficult as people distrust foreigners. They think we are desperate and dangerous. We once paid the deposit on a house, but then the person found a South African who wanted the house, so he returned our deposit and gave the place to him instead.
What has been one of your most positive experiences of living here?
I made friends with a couple who lived in Tokai. The husband was from Canada and the wife was from Australia. They loved me so much. They were very good friends of mine. They were really a family to me.
I met them while I was volunteering as an interpreter at a church in Capricorn. They approached me and asked me if I’d teach them French. They invited me home for lunch to get to know me and that’s how we became friends.
They lived simply but they shared whatever they had with me. I spent weekends at their home. They told me about their life. They wanted me to feel free with them. They even helped me to do research about bursaries because they knew I wanted to study.
They made me feel really at home. I could make myself a cup of tea in their kitchen and we would go to the grocery shop together. Recently, they left South Africa and I miss them a lot.
It’s not all about what money you can give. What really matters is your attitude and how you treat people.
– Billy is currently studying Petroleum Engineering at a university in Johannesburg and scored 97% on his last test. He hopes to complete his studies, however, this is dependent on him receiving further funding.
(Photography by A. Klioutchnikov, via Flickr.com)