African Odyssey Turns to the South

It’s noon, and Etienne Bokoli, a Congolese translator, is getting impatient. Babasar, from Senegal, has been inside the refugee reception centre since seven this morning. The high winter sun is beating down on the tin roofs of Messina, a small South African town near the border with Zimbabwe, and Babasar is still in there, along with hundreds of other illegal immigrants. Bokoli explains: “He crossed the border through the bush and turned up this morning at immigration services, too frightened to be able to ask for asylum in English. I acted as his interpreter.” He is waiting to be paid a few rand for his services.

“Thousands of illegal immigrants from the north of sub-Saharan Africa come to Messina overland every year,” says Mpilo Nkomo of the local office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Like Babasar, they take a plane from Dakar to Kinshasa, another to Lubumbashi, then wander around Zambia and Zimbabwe for a month. Zimbabwean people smugglers charge a few hundred rand (1 rand is 11 US cents) to cut through three barbed-wire fences and get them across the Limpopo. “Men, women, children… they all swim across as soon as it gets dark,” says Nkomo. “They’re lucky if they don’t get robbed in the bush by the people smugglers or meet a crocodile or a black mamba.”

If they can evade the border patrols, they gather in this building surrounded by red fences. Every ethnic group, from Somalia to Mauritania and from Chad to Zimbabwe, is represented this morning. One by one they emerge from the centre, each clutching a temporary residence permit. Eventually, so does Babasar, and he sets off for the bus station to catch a taxi. He is still frightened; his limbs are shaking and his lips are trembling. He has made it, but his fear of being arrested as he reached the final border remains vivid and he only manages to stammer out a few words. His taxi-van is soon a speck in the distance on the road to Johannesburg.

Bokoli meets about five West Africans each week: “Especially Senegalese and Ghanaians. It’s crazy how far they’ve come. The journey is even harder than the life they’re fleeing.” Ismaël Fofana knows this from personal experience. Now living in Johannesburg, he came from Abidjan, one of the economic hubs of West Africa and Ivory Coast’s biggest city, a few years ago: “People who are thinking about making the journey call me every day from Ivory Coast. They take no notice of my warnings. Since the World Cup in 2010, all they can think about is South Africa.”

Two Ways of Dying

Abidjan is 9,000km away on the Ebrié lagoon, just above the Gulf of Guinea. I am visiting in April, when the city is waiting for the storms that start the rainy season and end the heat. Even the Peugeot 504s — wôrowôro — used for public transport seem to go slower in the heat. Things have not been good here for 20 years: the decline of Ivory Coast, with economic crises, civil war and a long wait for a multiparty system, has reflected the loss of status of all of francophone Africa. The clashes that followed the 2010 elections finally broke the place.

“You don’t live in Abidjan, you survive,” says Razak Bakare, a photographer, his Nikon around his neck, who misses the “good old days” of President Houphouët-Boigny, head of state from 1960 to 1993. “In Ivory Coast you have a choice of two ways of dying: either you stay put and poverty kills you, or you venture into the unknown and hope for the best.” In the past, migrants looked to France, the former colonial master. (“Anywhere else wouldn’t be Ivoirian,” people joked.) But emigration is now economic rather than cultural. Immigration requirements in Europe have become tougher. And as reggae singer Ismaël Isaac says, “If we all leave, who will build Africa?” Moroccans, Kenyans and Angolans who once dreamed of the Mediterranean now look towards the emerging economies, especially South Africa, the centre of future growth and perhaps “the new America”.

“South Africa is more accessible than Europe,” says Felix Gnammoua, 24, a factory worker. “And for the same work, I’d earn ten times as much as here,” says Tiemeko Koné, an English teacher who dreams of making a documentary about a country where black and white live side by side, and of meeting Nelson Mandela. For the visa and the flight, he has a budget of around $4,000 — three times the average annual salary in Ivory Coast. “I’ll leave as soon as I get a visa, inshallah.”

Some migrants are too poor to fly but have the funds to travel overland. “I’ve saved enough to make the journey in a few weeks,” says Falla Bouanama, a handsome young man in an elegant red kaftan. The journey will be a homecoming: he was in South Africa for seven years, went back to Ivory Coast to see his family, and is now planning to return. His eyes sparkle when he talks about the beach at Point Street in Durban and the chic districts of Johannesburg where he worked as a street hawker. Others who seek a better life, from Nouakchott (Mauritania) to Lagos (Nigeria), also look south, as their fathers’ generation looked north.

There are dozens of transport companies ready to help. Among them is one run by Sanogo Bassikini and Edouard Amoussou, who operate out of a bus station in Port-Bouët. Both acknowledge they “don’t always do things entirely legally.” “But so what,” says Edouard, “all the transport companies in Abidjan do a bit of trafficking.”

“A passport and a vaccination certificate are all Ivoirians need to travel in ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States]”, says Bassikini, and 75,000 CFA francs and a five-day journey through Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria will get them to the coastal town of Calabar on the border of Cameroon. There, most of them, being unable to afford a visa, will go underground. Bassikini and Amoussou have a web of contacts highly experienced in getting people across borders, stretching as far as Kinshasa. “The first of them will be waiting for them in Lagos, the next in Douala,” says Bassikini, tracing the route with his finger on a map of Africa. “You’ll see. All the ‘illegals’ will end up in Cameroon.”

Like a Moon Mission

The journey to Johannesburg is usually interrupted at stop-off points where travellers stay from a few days to a few years while they save the money to continue. Grouped according to their nationality, many migrants take refuge in the Congo market at Douala, Cameroon, 2,500km from Abidjan, a maze of lanes flanked by papaya vendors, where the smell of roast chicken and Maggi stock cubes hangs in the air. The migrants all want to tell me stories about the greed of people smugglers, police corruption and the brutality of highway bandits.

“Five hundred francs by motorbike” further on from the market — distances are expressed in money — Ghanaian Bruno Firmin tells me about his odyssey. “The adventure of getting to South Africa is like a moon mission. All African families have their hero: a footballer, a singer or an adventurer.” He had been chosen to realise his brothers’ ambition: “To travel, to succeed and to send money home through Western Union.” His story is funny and sad — he wandered as far as Brazil (where he loved the girls on Copacabana beach), sweated in cotton fields in Santa Domingo, and was in Haiti during the great earthquake. The UN sent him back to Ghana where “no one respected me any more. I was destroyed. To get respect, I had to set off again, for South Africa this time.” He travelled from Accra to Douala in the hold of a cargo ship, “with some fruit, tins of sardines and a towel.” After a week at sea, “we had to come ashore by night and pay 10,000 francs to the police. Then I had to bribe another Cameroonian policeman to get a false identity card.” Bruno has been getting by doing odd jobs for five months. He has no idea when he will reach his destination. “Maybe in a year?”

Every year, 25,000 West Africans (1) — almost all men — try their luck on the overland route to South Africa. So do 20,000 Ethiopians and Somalis (2) and hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans and Mozambicans (3). “These lads want to get there whatever the cost,” says political scientist Jean-Emmanuel Pondi. For many, the journey stops in Gabon, Angola or Equatorial Guinea, which have become so rich from oil that migrants at their borders “look at the customs barriers as if an ancestor had left a huge inheritance on the other side,” says Emmanuel Bienvenu, a go-between for people smugglers and migrants.

‘Africa is Discovering Itself’

Contrary to popular belief, “the statistics absolutely do not corroborate the fears of an African invasion of Europe,” says Pondi. Despite those rafts overcrowded with African families shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, “only 5% of African migrants go to North America or Europe: 92% migrate to another African country (4). Africa is discovering itself.”

Most migrations are between neighbouring states: rural dwellers cross the border to work on a plantation, in a mine or an oil field. Bolder migrants look beyond their sub-region, but crossing the continent to reach South Africa is exceptional. Still, crossing borders “arbitrarily imposed by Europe, which are often meaningless on the ground,” Pondi says, may be a portent of the economic integration necessary for the continent to take off: the people smugglers may be helping this.

Bienvenu tells me about Ngom, a police officer turned people smuggler. “Every Thursday afternoon at three, he sits down in a snack bar in Akwa and within a few minutes the whole neighbourhood knows he’s there.” He watches passengers pile aboard a coach bound for Bata in Guinea: upstairs from the snack bar, his representative is collecting 20,000 francs for each passenger. “That’s three times the normal fare, but for that price Ngom bribes the customs men not to make checks,” says Bienvenu. Guinean shopkeepers use the services for their legitimate trade, and it’s the perfect cover for illegal immigrants who “pay 20,000 francs extra to blend into the background.”

Travellers heading for South Africa go through Gabon, where Ngom can put them in the hands of a colleague who “thanks to his highly placed contacts with the authorities, can get them through the border post at Ambam.” The Gabonese immigration police are the illegals’ worst nightmare. Ivorian Vié was arrested in Libreville: “I was sent back on the first cargo ship bound for West Africa.”

I am told that on leaving Douala, your best bet is to take the bus to Yaoundé, then Bertoua in east Cameroon. At the border post in Congo Brazza, you can buy a visa for 60,000 francs, and the town of Ouesso is just on the other side. To save money, Emeka, a Nigerian professional footballer, used bribes and charm: “At each border post, I put on my football strip and explained to the policemen that I was off to play for the AS Vital Club in Kinshasa. That made them well disposed towards me.” Emeka set off to achieve his football dream in 2006 with “football boots and jersey, a toothbrush and a credit card”. He made it to Ouesso, but still had to get through the virgin forest by bus as far as Brazzaville, a month’s journey that was “indescribable … I ate mangoes and oranges. When I got there I was shattered.” Some 3,000 km from Douala he eventually reached the next staging post on the journey: Beach Ngobila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The Chaotic Energy of Africa

On a June morning, Beach Ngobila, Kinshasa’s first land border, by the brown waters of the Congo, is busy with soldiers and traders with rickety wheelbarrows. All the chaotic energy of Africa, just come across the river in a boat, is pressing in front of Louis, an immigration officer. He later tells me: “The ‘Westaffs’ come through Beach en masse, but if they turn up without a visa, they get sent back.”

The reality is slightly different: “The 20 or so immigration officers who work at Beach Ngobila earn $200 a month, which is a pittance,” says David Lelu, a consultant with the IOM in Kinshasa. “So they let people through, and each officer averages an extra $500 a day, three days a week.” According to Lelu, this vast system of corruption is one of the few things that actually work in the DRC: “Immigration officers give their superiors a cut,” all the way up to the presidency.

Twenty or so people smugglers enjoy almost official status in Beach Ngobila: “There were about a hundred of us a couple of years ago, but they had a purge,” says a former civil servant at the interior ministry who switched to clandestine activities in 2004: “Usually a smuggler based in Brazza calls me to say he’s got ten men coming in to Beach. I can spot the West Africans easily: they’re between 18 and 30, they travel light, and they’re so traumatised by the journey that they look like they’ve escaped from a war zone.”

For each one he gets through he asks between “$500 and $1,000, depending on their resources. Then I pay the policemen a commission of $200 to $1,000 according to their rank.” He gets 150 people through each year, so Beach Ngobila is more like a sieve than a filter. There are also dozens of small ports outside the town where migrants disguised as fishermen land in dugouts after dark. “Almost as soon as they arrive, the West Africans are taken in by a host family. Ethnic and tribal ties are very strong,” especially in the dark alleyways around the Grand Marché.

Toughened by repeated round-ups by the authorities, “the community stands firm around its illegal immigrants” says Coulibaly Bouya, leader of Kinshasa’s Mali community. Integrated, speaking Lingaga, living by doing odd jobs such as selling roast meat or mending shoes, travellers save up to take to the road again. “This journey is just pain and shit,” says Bouya. Many men are trafficked into the diamond provinces in North Lunda in Angola. The few girls, mainly Congolese, die slowly in the brothels of Luanda. More migrants now know about the rape, the torture and mass expulsions, and so aim for South Africa.

Emeka the Nigerian put on his football boots again in 2010 and headed for Johannesburg. As the roads were impassable, he flew to Lubumbashi on the Zambian border. He was arrested and “spent seven months in prison before being transferred to the migrants’ detention centre in Kinshasa.” “It’s effectively a prison,” Lelu says. “It’s impossible to get access to it, even with permission from the Pope.” Emeka suffered “two more months of internment without seeing daylight.” Then he was freed after the intervention of an “unknown visitor who spoke English” and paid $250 to secure his release. “I never saw him again.”

Emeka, now 29, his eyes deadened by suffering, has given up his dream of becoming a footballer and makes a living by buying and selling motorcycle parts. Looking back on his six years of wandering, he realises he made some “bad decisions” and that “Nigeria is better, much better than Congo.” Caught between the humiliation of going back and fear of travelling on, he is just one of many crushed in pursuit of their dreams. “It’s a game of poker: either you become a hero or you end up having your humanity negated,” says Michael Tschantz, the IOM’s head of mission in Kinshasa. Already lost, “many simply prefer to disappear.”

Toward the Southern Cities

Those fleeing central Africa fly to Lubumbashi, capital of DRC’s southern Katanga province and point of entry to the southern countries. “Everybody goes through the border post at Kasumbalesa,” says a Congolese people smuggler. “For $250, I can take them by bus through Lusaka, Harare and on to Johannesburg in two days.” The straight line the motorway takes through the savannah bends as it approaches South Africa’s biggest city and the towers of the Central Business District stand out against the blue sky. The bus leaves the N1 and winds its way through a series of avenues before stopping at the bus terminus.

Parktown North, a working class district, is nearby. Marc Gbaffou is on the phone in his huge apartment, trying to extricate his younger brother from a police check. Benefitting from legislation favourable to political refugees, Congolese, Somalis and Zimbabweans find it easy to get into South Africa. Not so West Africans: “They’re taken to the police station without even being asked for their papers,” says Gbaffou, who represents the Ivorian community He arrived in 1997, began by selling vegetables, and is now an agrifood engineer. He keeps repeating that his success was an exception. “In general, migrants don’t manage to realise their dream here. But they get over it. South Africa is the marriage of love and reason.”

That union is most often consummated in the Yeoville district, where in the shade of gloomy buildings, an army of watchmen, artisans, masons and barbers seek their place in the sun, while tens of thousands of others have gone off to the mines or forests of Northern Cape or Kwazulu-Natal. A labour force voluntarily on the margins of the system is cheap and flexible. “They’re accused of undermining social standards,” says Aurélia Segatti, a researcher on the Southern African Migration Programme at the University of Witwatersrand. “Foreigners are the scapegoats for popular frustrations.” A 2008 opinion poll by the World Values Survey (5) found that South Africa was the most xenophobic country on the planet.

Those in power act accordingly: “The battle against document fraud has been stepped up, biometrics brought in, expulsions increased. In 15 years, 2.5 million foreigners have been expelled,” Segatti tells me. “The authorities have never taken migration’s economic dimension into account.” This nation, which claims emerging power status, is unable to handle the consequences. And African “brothers” who, from Nigerian charitable missions to Mozambican tax contributions, helped support the ANC’s struggle against apartheid, feel bitter. Some consider trying their luck in Europe or the US. “There’s a stubborn tendency to nurture the dream by keeping travelling forever,” says Marc Gbaffou. “My role is to tell them that they’re not going to find anything better elsewhere.”

Emilio Sie believes the rainbow nation has become “the country of maturity”. This Ivoirian garage-owner has seen his business prosper in the past decade. He talks about his “1.2m rand house in Germiston”, his three children at private school and the credit his bank manager gives him “whenever I pick up the phone.” “The adventure is over,” he says. Sie makes business trips “to India, Angola, and also Malaysia… It’s true — I travel every month. I can’t just sit still and do nothing.” His 10 employees, all immigrants, are repairing the bodywork of a collective taxi. Perhaps this is Sie’s destiny: he has never really got the journey out of his system.

Guillaume Pitron is a journalist.

Some names have been changed at interviewees’ request.


(1) This annual figure is arrived at by totalling the monthly figures published by Statistics South Africa(“Tourism and Migration Statistical Release”).

(2) See IOM, “In Pursuit of the Southern Dream: Victims of Necessity”, Geneva, April 2009.

(3) No reliable data available. See Tara Polzer Ngwato in “Population Movements in and to South Africa”, Centre for Migration and Society, Johannesburg, 2010.

(4) Figures from Jean-Emmanuel Pondi, Immigration et Diaspora: Un regard africain, Editions Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris, 2007.


This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.