South Africa: Escape from Zimbabwe

Velempini Ndlovu, who escaped Zimbabwe, studies photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg. Photo by Nicholas Centore
Velempini Ndlovu, who escaped Zimbabwe, studies photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg. Photo by Nicholas Centore.

When the sun rose on Feb. 7, 2007, in Zimbabwe, 29-year-old Velempini Ndlovu said goodbye to his wife, Thandie, and took his 3-year-old son, Keith, to preschool. His second son, Kevin, was two weeks old and remained asleep.

Velempini then went to the home of his cousin, Sindiso. He got in Sindiso’s Mazda minivan with another cousin, Nokuthula, and they drove away from their hometown of Bulawayo, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe with more than one million people. When the three reached the South African border about 150 miles south of Bulawayo, Velempini and Sindiso had their passports stamped, but Nokuthula did not have one. At each checkpoint, her cousin said, she bribed border control agents during the 500-mile trip of Johannesburg with  between 20 and 100 rand, or approximately $3-15,  and eventually the three cousins entered the country, two documented and one undocumented. Velempini’s two young sons had no idea their father would be crossing the border from Zimbabwe to South Africa that day, an action which, for many reasons, forever changed their lives.

The Early Years

It was May 15, 2004, the day FIFA announced South Africa would host the 2010 Soccer World Cup, when Velempini and Thandie realized they needed to leave Zimbabwe. The country was experiencing an economic meltdown with hyperinflation destroying the value of the Zimbabwe dollar. “In 2007, I was working as a university librarian for six years and earning Z$900 million a month,” Velempini said. This monthly pay equated to 50 South African rand or approximately $7.50 U.S. dollars. With just a cell phone, two pairs of jeans and three shirts, he left his family so he could restart their lives in a country with a more stable economy.

When he and his two cousins, both of whom have since died, reached Johannesburg, Velempini stayed with Sindiso and worked as a “bar man,” a job his cousin bought him for R500, or about $75. He cited the process of “starting off fresh” as being one the biggest adversities he faced in immigrating. With training and work experience in information science, he said he couldn’t find even a similar job in South Africa. “I went from serving people books to serving people alcohol, and I don’t even like alcohol.”

Velempini also faced emotional challenges with the move. “It was difficult to leave [my family], but I knew I had to do it or else we would continue living a below-average lifestyle in Zimbabwe, getting angry about politicians who do not want to change,” he said. When he left, teachers were not getting paid or going to work and children were not attending school.


Once he had earned enough money, he bought a small point-and-shoot camera and rented a shack in Tembisa, a large township on the East Rand in Gauteng, the province containing Johannesburg. “I was always a photographer from way back because my father taught me photography from when I was six [years old],” Velempini said. He added that most people in Tembisa cannot afford cameras, so he worked and continues to work as a portrait photographer, selling images to community members for 10 rand, or approximately $1.50. “The bonus is then getting to work birthday parties, weddings and other functions,” he said.

A year later, he was earning enough money to rent two rooms, allowing his wife and children to join him in South Africa. But they could not afford to pay off the border police and because the Zimbabwean government did not have the proper passport-printing paper, they were unable to get temporary passports. So Velempini’s wife and two small sons made the dangerous journey going through the bush and jumping the wire that runs along the Zimbabwe/South Africa border, a trek on which instances of assault, rape and extortion have been known to happen.

Velempini’s fears were comforted by their traveling with his cousin. “He transports people, even the ones without papers, to and from Joburg. It’s a whole industry… And now that they’re saying they are starting deportations, business is going to pick up for those people.”

Bribes and Corruption

Corruption surrounding immigration in South Africa has run rampant over the years. “The police I know, they always want money…In South Africa you can buy any identity document. For R1500 (approximately $225) you are a citizen,”  Velempini said.

When purchasing a permit or birth certificate, someone is buying the identity of an actual South African citizen. “You are a legal citizen as long as you are not caught,”  Velempini said. When someone buys an identification book someone else will already have that identity. So, for instance, someone could get caught if he or she walks into a bank to open an account but someone with that name already has an account there.

Velempini’s father, two young sisters, grandmother and other extended family still live in Zimbabwe. When asked how he manages to cross the border to see them, he responded simply, “You just go…the alternative is jumping over the fence. But it’s much better to go through the official border gate and bribe people…If you’re confident you can bluff your way through.”

There is also discrepancy behind the process of obtaining a permit to stay. Managers do not feel comfortable hiring an immigrant who does not already have a work permit, but in order to legally obtain the work permit, one needs a signed affidavit from an employer verifying employment. “So some people end up buying their permit even if they’re not working so when they get a job they already have one,” Velempini said.

Come Amnesty, Come Application

Four years after their arrival in South Africa, Velempini and his two sons do not have permits to live in this country. “I came in with a three-month passport. But when the three months expired, I never went back. I just stayed.”

He and his family applied for permits last December because the government introduced a documentation and amnesty program, allowing undocumented Zimbabwean immigrants to come forward and apply for permits without being penalized. The program was scheduled to end Dec. 31, 2010 but was extended to July 31, 2011.

“Last month I phoned [The Office of Home Affairs]. They gave me a reference number and said they were going to call me back and I’ve still not heard. What they are saying now is that the deadline for people to have permits is 31 July and the first of August they’re going to start deportations. But they haven’t finished processing all the people that applied,” Velempini said.

Future Plans

At this point, Velempini said he is not afraid of deportation, especially since he has put in a legal application. “If they send me home, I’ll just come back with 20 others,” he said with a chuckle.

Today Velempini studies photojournalism and documentary photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg. He receives a scholarship, which pays for two-thirds of the costly tuition in exchange for his dedicating 25 days of free work to the school. His son attends a free government school in South Africa, and his wife is working as a school teacher.

Velempini is considering the possibility of someday moving back to Zimbabwe and starting a photography school there in hopes of bringing more awareness and acceptance of the art back to his home country.


  1. Wow, that is quite a tale. One thing that’s not mentioned is whether Velempini faced much hostility in SA due to his status as a Zimbabwean immigrant. There’s many ghettos in SA composed primarily of Zimbabweans who are discriminated against by other poor South Africans due to a perception they are “taking their jobs”.

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