Many other Africans look to South Africa as a land of opportunity. Papa Luc, a Congo national, hoped to build a new life for himself when he fled his war-ravaged country in 2007. His life in Yeoville has turned out differently from what he expected. 

Papa Luc ekes out a living in Yeoville cutting hair from 9am to 6pm for R20 per head. Holding an electric trimmer all day is a tough job and it shows on his knobby hands and swollen knuckles. You wouldn’t know that he has a degree in central hydraulic engineering. From a drawer beneath a bureau cluttered with clippers and combs he pulls out a wrinkled brown envelope. Neatly tucked inside are several degrees and certificates all inscribed with his real name: “Luc Ali Mabiala”. He glances over the envelope with a hollow look of unrealised dreams and a rueful smile. “Really, to tell you the truth I am not happy at all … Many, many companies here want me but I don’t have the right papers to work with them.” Papa Luc’s story is a typical one for many immigrants in South Africa who have found that they don’t earn any respect despite their prestigious qualifications. These highly trained migrants scrambling in the sizzle of Yeoville struggle to make ends meet when their qualifications have been rendered “toilet paper” in the absence of a South African ID. Some are still hopeful they’ll find jobs in their chosen profession, but many have forgotten their potential and are caught up in a daily rat race to put bread on the table and clothes on their back.

A heavy past

Papa Luc, 36, fled war in his native Congo-Brazzaville and has been in South Africa for seven years. At the salon where he rents a chair, everyone calls him ‘Papa Luc’ perhaps due to his wisdom and the early age lines making home on his face. Papa Luc is small in stature and appears to be meek and detached. He offers a quick stare and a deliberate smile as he talks about the Congo, letting anyone know where his heart resides.  His hands are animated as he describes his home. But quickly the nostalgia disappears as he speaks about his reasons for leaving Congo. “It’s a very powerful country, very good people, humble people but politics is killing everything,” says Papa Luc. The history of Congo’s civil war began in June 1997, when Denis Sassou Ngessou, who had previously been in power from 1979 to 1992, organised a coup with the complicity of France to overthrow the president at the time, Pascal Lissouba. This war was fuelled by the discovery of oil in the Congo. “My father was being killed in our own house by Sassou Ngessou soldiers, my mother, my sisters were being raped in the house before me and it’s only God who gave us the chance to still be alive,” says Papa Luc.

RED RIDING POLO: This is Luc’s favourite shirt which he wears when he’s feeling “lucky”. Luc said, when his barber job was not providing a steady income, he bets on horses and soccer games at the BetXchange. This helps him cover rent expenses. The most he has won is R45 000, most of which went on to pay his university fees for a degree in Political Science. He still gambles, but admits he has not been as lucky. Photo: Thabile Manala.

The degrees covered with dust

Before the war, Papa Luc had earned his matric, then certificates and degrees in computer science and central hydraulic engineering. He had bright prospects and began working as an electrical engineer, his dream job.  But for him, and many other Congolese, war destroyed those dreams and forced them to move abroad as refugees. “Let me tell you, war is not good huh, with an ethnic war it can follow you to hell,” he says. After arriving in South Africa as a refugee, Papa Luc continued his education and got certificates to work in a call centre and diplomas in IT, electronics and telecommunications. He did another degree at the University of Johannesburg in Political Science and Diplomacy. Yet despite these qualifications, every morning Papa Luc wakes up to go to his rented chair at a salon in Rockey Street to cut hair for R20 per head as a means of putting bread on his table.

But, where is your ID?

Papa Luc has made efforts to get employment and has sent CVs to many companies. The response from prospective employers is usually positive, he passes the interviews and it appears he will get the job—until the employers ask him one question. “But only one thing they ask from me: ‘Your ID?’ When I take my refugee paper and show them, they say: ‘what is this? Is this a toilet paper?’” Papa Luc says. “Whenever they say: ‘We will call you’ I already know what that means.” Many companies in Johannesburg are interested in Papa Luc’s skills, but he cannot overcome the monumental challenge of having the “right” papers.

Despite the situation of Papa Luc, and others like him, the Department of Home Affairs’ spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete says government welcomes skilled immigrants who “will contribute positively to our economic development”. “In the critical skills space, our immigration regulations have made it easier for those seeking to further their careers in South Africa.” However, this clearly is not the reality many academic refugees are facing. Papa Luc regrets coming to South Africa and hopes to join his mother and sisters in exile in the United States where they have enjoyed more success than him. “They are beautiful, fat, they’re eating nice, they’re sleeping nice, they have cars. The American government gave them all the opportunities … With the qualifications I have, I could be very happy,” he says.

An unfair reality

Papa Luc is grateful for his job at the salon. But he becomes obviously withdrawn and smiles half-heartedly at the reality of his life. “With this job it’s giving me the opportunity to support myself, to pay schooling and the school of my baby’s home, to pay my rent even if I’m not buying nice clothes. I don’t care but my brain is full of knowledge,” he says.

Papa Luc is one of many foreign nationals with qualifications, including former academics, living in South Africa who have resigned their lives to owning small restaurants, working in salons, or—if they are very fortunate—working as teachers. Dr. Roni Amit, a senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society, says that refugees are entitled to work and study in South Africa. However for their qualifications to be recognised they have to go through the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) which requires a lot of documentation.

“Any challenges they face are likely to come from discrimination or a lack of knowledge about a refugee status, rather than from the law itself,“ she says. The resistance that Papa Luc faces when he presents his refugee papers to prospective employers is testimony of this fact, even though his permit says he can work and study in South Africa. Many foreign nationals, like Papa Luc, try to play the cards they have been dealt in South Africa with their refugee status. But others decide to reshuffle the deck, and seek success outside the law with illegally arranged marriages to South African women.

Papa Luc, despite his many qualifications, makes a living trimming the hair of Yeoville residents. By: Thabile Manala

The hustle of arranged marriages

This is what Chikwe* (39) does for money. He refused to let his real name be used for this article and would only agree to be interviewed in a dingy alleyway behind a salon on Rockey Street. Chikwe has only one eye, the other is clouded over and blind. Using his good eye, he glances over his shoulder and scans the alley anxiously. “Everything we are talking [about] is very dangerous because if they can catch me talking to you like this I will be in trouble.” Like Papa Luc, Chikwe is also from Congo-Brazzaville. However, unlike his countryman, Chikwe has an illegal sideline in connecting South African women with foreign men in need of sham marriages for documentation. “You can travel from Johannesburg to maybe Mpumalanga or Limpopo to get a wife,” he says.

IN A PAST LIFE: Luc Mabiala was living out his dreams as an electrical engineer in the Congo – one of the few chosen to work on a project with the Chinese. The production of electricity was a specialised field he felt privileged to be a part of. He hoped it would advance his career. Photo: Thabile Manala

The women he finds are often without income and can be convinced to enter a marriage of convenience with a foreign man for a monthly payment. Many of them have kids but the child grant they receive from the government is not enough to provide for their families. Chikwe is the connection in these deals, and he is paid for every successful connection he makes. Chikwe says the terms of an arranged marriage vary in terms of the agreed financial transactions. Sometimes the man will give the woman R2000 or R3000 every month. Sometimes the monthly fee is as little as R1500.

It usually depends on the man’s financial circumstances. Chikwe says that often the women, although willing to engage in a deal, will still refuse to be married to foreign nationals.  Instead, some of the women will travel to Johannesburg with the men to apply as “life partners” at Home Affairs, which is a recognised union by the department. The benefit for the men is the same—they can live and work in South Africa—while the women can avoid the stigma of being “married” to a foreign national.

Amit says little is known about the extent of arranged marriages with little empirical evidence on the subject. However, despite the lack of evidence, it is often talked about and treated as a serious issue by Home Affairs. Tshwete says: “It’s prevalent to the extent that it happens more than we would want it to. The exact number is hard to tell due to many cases being investigated and others not even being detected.” “The department also has a counter-corruption unit which was set up to look into matters of impropriety.” Chikwe’s good eye begins to shift sideways as he swears that these marriages of convenience are common and are a way for foreign men to make themselves employable in South Africa. The women involved either do so for financial reasons or unknowingly when their IDs are stolen by someone like Chikwe.

“Anyone, she’s working from the bank, she’s a teacher, she’s a doctor, anyone,” says Chikwe. Being legitimately married to a South African is a definite benefit. Lama May Mayele (44), a former boxing national champion from Congo, married a South African woman five years ago for love—though it had the added benefit of helping his business. By adding her name to his business, he was able to acquire credit from banks instead of having to pay cash up front.

Today he runs a successful security business. “No one will say ‘I want to pay cash’ whilst you have your wife who could apply for a bond … It’s a necessary tool,” he says. Papa Luc knows that having a South African wife would help his prospects, a prospective employer once even told him to get married to a South African so he could be employed. But still he refuses. “I said ‘no, it’s not good’ because first of all I will never love that woman, when I see her and know that I have corrupted her, I will never love her,” he says.

CLOSE SHAVE: From 9am every morning, Luc is at his rented chair in a hair salon. The customers sometimes trickle in slowly, so to maximise profits Luc also shaves beards and does women’s hair. He is diligent and has earned a trusted client base. Although there is another barber in the salon, many people would rather wait in line for Luc’s service on the busy days. Photo: Thabile Manala

“I did a course on law and international law. I am here in South Africa as a foreigner, the first thing I have to do is respect each and every letter of South African law. I am able to be corrupt and buy that paper but in my conscience I could never be at peace,” Papa Luc says firmly. These moral qualms don’t bother Chikwe: “Do you know that I can travel from here in South Africa using your passport? Do you know that I can buy a shirt with your credit card? Do you know that me I can get money from the government, you the money you don’t get, me I can get it,“ he says excitedly, turning his back from passing cars so he will not be recognised.

Chikwe didn’t start out as a hustler. This man, who brags in a back alley behind a hair salon about his aptitude at identity theft, holds a Master’s degree in Physical Geography. He teaches physics and French part-time at a private school in the Johannesburg CBD where he’s paid about R1500 to R2000 a month, less than the salary of his colleagues who are South Africans. Chikwe has been to SAQA to translate his degree into South African qualifications and has been to formal job interviews. But here his story becomes much the same as Papa Luc’s when he proffers his refugee papers. “They look at my folded A4 paper and say ‘ah kwerekwere’ I don’t know what is the meaning of ‘kwerekwere’ but you are human being and you are black … There is no respect with this paper,“ Chikwe says.

Chikwe defends his illegal activities, his hustles and his schemes. They are a way for him to make money, and he sees no other solution to his circumstances. Jean-Pierre Lukamba, vice-chairman of the African Diaspora Forum in Yeoville, says many foreign nationals are despondent since they possess skills which could be useful to South Africa. “They are stressed and traumatised, we’d understand if there was no shortage [of skills] but there are closed hospitals in Limpopo because of no skills,” Lukamba says. Lukamba said his organisation is in talks with companies to educate them about foreign nationals and refugees and their ability to work legally. Until then, many foreigners will continue to face closed doors. “Most of them feel like they are not human enough,” says Lukamba. Not only did war disrupt the lives of these men but their efforts to rebuild in South Africa have been met by systemic backlash. While some, like Papa Luc, are working within the law and their reduced circumstances, others like Chikwe have become hustlers. Both men know the world is not fair, but they also know a man needs to eat.

FEATURED IMAGE: This is Luc’s favourite shirt which he wears when he’s feeling “lucky”. Luc said, when his barber job was not providing a steady income, he bets on horses and soccer games at the BetXchange. This helps him cover rent expenses. The most he has won is R45 000, most of which went on to pay his university fees for a degree in Political Science. He still gambles, but admits he has not been as lucky. Photo: Thabile Manala.