'An immigrant has to work harder than a South African for the same success'

People throughout Africa may see SA as a land of opportunity, but nothing comes easily to an immigrant, says Anesu Jahura

21 July 2019 - 00:00 By Anesu Jahura
It was tough being an 'outlier' says Anesu Jahura, who moved to Cape Town from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, as a child.
It was tough being an 'outlier' says Anesu Jahura, who moved to Cape Town from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, as a child.
Image: Esa Alexander

‘OK class, to break the ice, go around in a circle and introduce yourself. Start with your name, your hobbies, oh, and don’t forget to tell us where you’re from!” said my primary school teacher.

The words where you’re from mean a lot more to me than the average student in SA. Where I’m from is the reason I’m in a foreign country, working to have a better life than my countrymen back home. Where I’m from is why I faced subtle bullying and exclusion in an environment where I was an outcast. Where I’m from is the source of much of the stress and uphill battles that immigrants face every day.

My name is Anesu Jahura, and I am an immigrant student here to tell my story.

I was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 2001. My father was in the army and my mother was a teacher. Things were all fine and dandy until poverty and corruption in Zimbabwe reached their peak. The government was a mess, state workers’ salaries were months overdue, and items as basic as bread were a scarce find in stores.

Eventually, my parents had had enough and decided to migrate in 2008. I was in grade 1 at the time, and my sister was in grade 5.

HOPING TO FIND A HAVEN

Like birds roaming to new territories, our instincts guided us and we decided to settle in Cape Town. A whole new life, adventure and set of circumstances were upon us. It was time to see if SA was the haven we hoped it would be.

When I started school in SA it was the second term of grade 1. I went to a 90% coloured school in Grassy Park. Upon arrival, many students came up to me, intrigued and wanting to investigate. They spoke a weird language, one I knew almost nothing about. This must be the “English” that was spoken so highly of back home, I thought.

Unsure of how to respond to their statements or answer their questions, I played it safe and simply replied “yes” or “no” to everything. Some looked puzzled, others burst into laughter, and one or two gave me weird looks.

The next few days went by pretty much the same, until I picked up my first book. I don’t remember the title, but I do remember that it didn’t have many pictures, and I surprisingly loved it. Reading that first book of mine was the first time I fell in love with English. I read a few more books after that, and I pestered my teacher to help me pronounce the words — I couldn’t ask any of the kids because most of them viewed me as an outcast. My ability in English skyrocketed. By the time I had reached grade 2, I was reading for the grade 4s and having full conversations with the teachers.

To everyone’s bemusement, I had learnt in one year what took most kids 10 years — how to read, write and speak English. My teachers were impressed, but many of my peers were not as approving. I was subjected to a lot of bullying, dirty looks and feelings of rejection.

THE VICTIM OF MY OWN SUCCESS

I essentially had no friends. Even from that early age, I was the victim of my own success, viewed as unworthy of having it. Before you knew it, behavioural problems ensued. Convinced that the school was a bad environment, my parents transferred me to another school, in Muizenberg. Same story, different book.

Sure, the students were smarter at this more prestigious school, but I still felt the same feeling of exclusion. I was forced to accept unfamiliar cultures, practices and ideologies.

I was never able to truly shout out to the world what I believed SA should be like. I was always shy to tell people where I came from — it was tough being the outlier among many “normal” students. I missed my country — the people, the culture, the music and just the overall feeling of being at home. I was essentially homesick.

I won’t lie, the environment was good. Roads were neatly paved, shops were fully stocked, my parents earned decent money, and I went to a school that gave me a good education. However, I never felt truly free to soak it all in and just enjoy the better “opportunities”. I always had to remember to never get carried away. I had to remember why I was here: to become a success and better my family.

Although I was smart, the pressure to succeed always existed. I had to get As, I had to involve myself in activities, I had to stay out of trouble and I had to become a success. I was not here to play around; I was here to succeed. I had to do well for my family, I had to do well for all the relatives back home who were deeply struggling, and I had to do well enough to go back home one day, hopefully to help my country.

I was not here to play around; I was here to succeed

I was subjected to the pressure of providing for my loved ones long before I started working. People say that they don’t teach you about taxes in school … become an African immigrant and “black tax” will sort that out!

Truth be told, SA has given me a decent life. Many foreign students can attest to the same thing. I live in Cape Town with my parents and my older brother and sister, who are both at university. We are more fortunate than many of my immigrant peers and friends, but this is only due to my parents’ ceaseless hard work. The truth is that as an immigrant, you have to work much harder than the average South African for the same success.

My mother arrived with 10 years of experience as a teacher, but had to wait another nine to be awarded a permanent post by the government. If you are not an exceptional professional, you won’t fare well on paper against a South African citizen — gaining jobs and tenders from the government is tougher than hammering a nail with a needle.

COMPLICATED PROCESSES AT HOME AFFAIRS

To work and study as an immigrant in SA, you need a minimum of a work or study permit. However, the complicated processes at home affairs to get your documents in order is quite challenging and frankly tedious.

This is not to mention funding for tertiary studies. Unlike South African students, we don’t qualify for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and many decent bursary opportunities. Although having permanent residency status, with a South African ID book, does help your case a little bit, if your ID doesn’t say “country of birth: South Africa”, the odds are stacked against you.

I am in grade 12 and my school life has improved. I have become quite studious and have found my niche in writing and physics, especially mechanics. I owe my passion for writing partly to my English teacher, who was the first person to believe in my writing.

I have always loved aviation, and my physics teacher always makes time to sit and explain theory to me in a very practical way. I hope one day to become an aeronautical engineer and a part-time writer. I have been accepted to start at the University of Cape Town in 2020 to study a BSc in mechanical engineering, and I am now facing the harsh reality that many immigrant students face in SA. Even with 90% in pure maths, 80% in physics and a consistent “A” average, I have had many bursary applications declined by state-owned companies like Sasol due to my non-South African citizenship.

Again, holding a permanent residence permit is helpful in this regard, but ultimately still not good enough. I can barely count the number of phone calls I’ve had to make to companies who weren’t sure what permanent residence status entails!

Even with 90% in pure maths, 80% in physics and a consistent “A” average, I have had many bursary applications declined by state-owned companies like Sasol due to my non-South African citizenship

MAN, IS IT HARD!

I know that something will come through for me, but man, is it hard! I’ve seen many smart and dedicated foreign students resigning themselves to a life of waitressing or working in retail due to the unavailability of funding for tertiary studies. I feel for them, and it is quite heartbreaking, but I guess that’s the nature of life. Pity, though; the South African economy would be boosted by their work ethic and academic ability!

I truly hope that I can one day return to Zimbabwe to help my country and family prosper. However, it would be unfair to do that without working in SA for a few years. This country has helped me to live a decent life and have the prospect of a fruitful future.

I will admit, though, I am a bit disillusioned. In most poor countries in Africa, moving to SA is equivalent to the American dream. It’s advertised as a haven of opportunities where jobs fall out of the sky. Many Africans move to SA with the same thoughts and expectations.

When they arrive, however, they realise that it’s not as simple as it seems. We, as immigrants, are forced to compete in an already strained job market where we face tougher chances of success. We live in communities that appear to become more and more xenophobic, depending on how poor the community is.

Everywhere you look, more and more foreigners are filling up communities and workplaces. Many township businesses are run by immigrants, and many of the top-achieving students are immigrants.

However hard the circumstances become, however harshly the odds are stacked against us, and however scarce the opportunities become, we keep on pushing. We keep on working, and we keep on doing our best to succeed. If you ever wonder why foreign students are some of the most hard-working groups of people, or why educated immigrants usually make excellent employees, the answer is simple: it’s because we have to.


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