Joyce had heard there were many opportunities in South Africa for someone like her. Her parents couldn’t afford her school fees and she had little hope of finding a job in her rural village in Zimbabwe. The only option Joyce had was getting over to South Africa to look for a job.
So one night, without telling their parents where they were going, Joyce and her three friends followed in the footsteps of many Zimbabweans before her and left for South Africa with the help of a local guide.
But Joyce’s dream quickly turned into a nightmare. Once the group had crossed the border, she and her friends were kidnapped by the notorious guma guma, gangs who pray on Zimbabweans coming into South Africa. The guma guma are gangs of Zimbabwean and South African men who roam between the borders of the two countries. Their victims are beaten, robbed, raped and sometimes sold to other gangs.
Joyce and her friends were kept as prisoners there for a month and were subjected to sexual abuse on a daily basis. It was only when their next door neighbours broke in and let them out that they managed to go to the police and get sent home.
The stronger economy and the job opportunities that many think they will find in South Africa appeal to youngsters in search of a better life
Joyce, now 19 years old, said: ‘We contemplated killing ourselves because we were so hungry and scared. The only time we ate was when the men brought home food at night. There were two girls staying in each room and two men would pair up and go to each room.’
Joyce isn’t the first person to have made the dangerous journey. The International Labour Organisation estimates that nearly 2,500 children pass through one border crossing to South Africa and neighbouring countries every month.
For young Zimbabweans like Joyce, job prospects look bleak and boredom sets in if they are forced out of school early. The stronger economy and the job opportunities that many think they will find in South Africa appeal to youngsters in search of a better life. But the journey to their richer neighbour isn’t an easy one. Youngsters brave lions, crocodiles, the swollen treacherous Limpopo River, miles of dangerous bushland and human traffickers just to get across.
Even if they make it, they are usually without proper documents, so are at risk of being abused by their employers, the police and traffickers and often forced to live in squalid conditions. Most child migrants work in the informal, illegal or unregulated sectors including prostitution, sale of drugs, domestic work, vending, begging, petty crime and garbage scavenging.
Victor, 19 years old, was in a similar situation to Joyce. With no money to pay for school and bored of having nothing to fill his days up with, he decided to head to South Africa and find work on a farm. But on his way, Victor and the group of boys he was with were met by a pride of lions, which ate some of them and forced the survivors up a tree, where they remained for three days.
When Victor eventually got to South Africa, he found work on a vineyard picking grapes. He was paid 400 Rand ($50) for the first month but his boss refused to pay him the second month. When Victor and his friends threatened to leave, their boss called the police and they were deported back to Zimbabwe.
International children’s NGO Plan is offering young people like Victor and Joyce alternatives to migrating – income-generating and skills training, and has enlisted returnees to talk to other youngsters about the dangers that can await young people in South Africa.
When Joyce returned home, she joined the Nyanyadzi training centre where she was taught dressmaking. Joyce was given a sewing machine and her ambition now is to make school uniforms.
Victor enrolled himself in the Plan goat project where he learnt how to look after goats and manage a business.
‘What I like about goats is if they begin to multiply, we will be able to buy cows, or we can use the money to do other courses to help us in life,’ said Victor.
Joyce said: ‘What would I be doing if I didn’t have this course? Nothing, as I had dropped out of school. The course is going to sustain me and I am confident I am going to look after myself.’