There was a lot of it during white rule and most of them got jobs, but times have changed. The dysfunctional state of Africa elsewhere is however still the same — even President Obama says so

Beneath the granite shadow of South Africa’s Quadu Mountains, the prayers for the dead infant are spoken in Shona, the language of rural Zimbabwe. It is early morning. Across the De Doorns township, an hour’s drive east of the commercial heart of Cape Town, migrant labourers emerge from twisted tin shacks, forced awake by the sound of mourning drifting across the main highway north to Johannesburg.

By the roadside cemetery a dozen women sing and shiver in the midwinter chill beneath a circling flock of starlings: “We will meet again in Heaven, through the blood of Jesus, we will meet.” At their stamping feet, on a mound of rocky earth, sits the tiny coffin of thin cream-coloured plywood. Inside lies the body of one-year-old Melissa Mauketo, emaciated and withered, a victim of malnutrition in a country that has become a false beacon of hope for Africa’s dispossessed.

The corner of the burial ground we are standing in betrays a wider tragedy. Around us are crude immigrant graves adorned with simple white crosses. On each crucifix, the knife-carved names of other infants, the diseased and malnourished children of immigrants from Lesotho, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. All of Africa in the ground beneath us. The girl’s middle name was Nyaradzo. It means “comfort”, the dead child’s mother, Patience, tells me through her sobs. “We are a long way from home here, but Zimbabwe is still worse.”

As we leave the cemetery, Braam Hanekom, the founder of Passop, a campaigning charity that helps South Africa’s refugees, says that up to 1,000 illegal migrants are coming to the Western Cape every day, looking for work and a new start. “By the time the World Cup is upon us that figure will have increased dramatically,” he says. “This situation here is unacceptable. A child’s death from malnutrition on the outskirts of Cape Town is astonishing and, with more immigrants coming in, it can only get worse.”

He adds: “Imagine the 2010 games as an enormous magnet for Africa’s uneducated and impoverished and then imagine how bad life will become for these immigrants who come here to these townships and camps with the hope of finding work but find only exploitation and xenophobia. The situation is much broader than the government recognises. “What’s not being acknowledged is the fact that this isn’t a ‘male migrant’ issue. They are still summoning their families as soon as they arrive here, wives and children, when they can barely feed themselves, and these people are dying. The World Cup will be a tragedy for many African families.”

For all its poverty and historic divisions, South Africa remains, despite last summer’s xenophobic attacks, which left 70 foreign workers dead in a wave of antiimmigrant violence, a beacon of hope for the dispossessed and persecuted, with a constitution that in theory guarantees equality and a functioning economy that rewards entrepre-neurial effort.

With President Robert Mugabe’s continued destruction of Zimbabwe’s economy, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans, many of them well educated, still stream across the Limpopo river into South Africa, straining its resources. Figures vary, but as many as 3m Zimbabweans may have made the cross-border journey under cover of darkness, one of the largest exoduses Africa has seen.

More recently they have been joined by immigrants from Somalia, Nigeria, Angola and Mozambique. Government sources now claim that there are at least 6m foreign nationals working illegally in South Africa, representing 14% of the population.

Melissa Mauketo’s story shows many immigrants are facing even deeper hardship. For South Africa’s illegal workers, underpayment, long working hours, poor living conditions and starvation are accepted parts of daily life. Most suffer in silence for fear of losing their jobs or being deported. Philani Zamuchiya, of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, a research centre at the University of the Western Cape, claims that already appalling conditions on farms are becoming worse for migrants, who will accept almost any job out of desperation. He said that although minimum salaries should be £110 a month, most farmers were paying their workers a mere £20, which, “with their families, isn’t enough to feed themselves”.

Problems worsen during the five-month off season for work in the vineyards. Farm workers struggle to meet bare necessities, and infant mortality in the immigrant camps soars. “There is no food here, just like Zimbabwe,” says Anita Makauto, Melissa’s aunt. “Over there is a rubbish dump where Zimba-bwean and Congolese immigrants queue up every Friday to eat, waiting for the trucks to arrive to feed their families. “I have been there for scraps, as have all of my family. I see women eat straight from the ground, rotten cabbage and potatoes, scraping fruit out of tins with their hands. The council has told us we must take the rotten food away from the dump and eat it out of sight of the police.” ….

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