Every year, thousands of Zimbabweans cross the South African border searching for prosperity, but are met by the bleak reality of unemployment and xenophobia. In 2010, the then 16-year-old Bryant Lovemore was one such hopeful. Eight years later, he is still here and is starting to experience the success he was promised as a young entrepreneur.
Lovemore didn’t tell his family when he crossed the Limpopo River into South Africa in search of what his friends told him was “the promised land”. The teenager had spent his whole life in the town of Kwekwe, hearing about South Africa and dreaming about escaping his life on his family’s farm, which he’d been working on since he was eight.
“I thought to myself, no, there’s got to be more to life than this,” Lovemore said. “I needed more”
Lovemore began to save, balancing his responsibilities on the farm with his new business installing and fixing satellite dishes. He asked his friends about South Africa and they said it was a sort of “heaven”, where everyone can get good jobs. He left on his own with a backpack and his saved South African currency on a bus full of hopeful immigrants with the vague goal of going to Joburg.
He and the other travellers clung to a rope as they crossed the Limpopo River into South Africa, staring crocodiles in the face. On the other side of the river, the migrants were met by robbers who stripped them of everything. Lovemore’s backpack was stolen, but he managed to keep his money.
He climbed an electric fence and cut his hands badly, and slept at a bus station, before using his money to buy a ticket bound for Joburg the next morning. His two-day journey, he recalled, was difficult, but he said that was just the start of his challenges.
“Joburg will show you flames,” Lovemore said.
When he arrived in the city centre with no contacts or place to stay, he realised he might be in trouble.
“Around 6pm everyone disappears and you’re on your own, with nowhere to go,” Lovemore said. “From there things were upside down, because I spent six months on the streets.”
Lovemore spent months looking for things to eat and avoiding drugs, pickpocketing and the violence ever present on Joburg’s streets. He began to feel hopeless, because he said people saw him covered in dirt. He added that he felt betrayed by the people back home who had promised that a better life awaited him here.
“There came a time on the streets when I thought I was going to give up, that this was the end of my life, because there’s no life on the streets,” Lovemore said.
But one day one of his friends told him about a church where he could stay. They went that night to the Central Methodist Church in the CBD and met Bishop Paul Verryn, who told Lovemore he could have a bed to sleep on and admission to his school.
Verryn’s school, called Albert Street School, provides a place to learn for hundreds of refugees, mostly from Zimbabwe, as well as South African learners.
He got school clothes and a spot to sleep in a large, overcrowded room in the church. And the very next morning he was a learner at the Cambridge Curriculum Private School.
“My life started again very quickly,” Lovemore said.
As he didn’t have papers, Lovemore spent much of his initial schooling repeating courses over and over, because he couldn’t sit for exams.
He said being at the school was sometimes difficult because he was surrounded by wealthy learners who were dropped at school each morning by their parents, with cappuccinos in hand.
Once, one of his classmates told him that he and other refugees were just overcrowding the school because they weren’t paying school fees. While Lovemore said the better-off learners were otherwise kind, he felt uncomfortable when they offered him clothing and food.
Soon, Lovemore started hustling at weekends selling ice creams on Saturdays and newspapers on Sundays. He used to arrive at school each week with money to buy lunch and snacks.
Finally, Verryn was able to help Lovemore write his exams and graduate from the school when he was 21 in 2014. He said he wanted to go to university to study technology, but couldn’t because he had nobody to pay for his studies, nor did he have papers to apply for bursaries.
The bishop allowed him to continue staying at the shelter and orphanage, now in Soweto, because he watched Lovemore bringing back food for the younger children in the orphanage who hadn’t eaten.
Four years later, Lovemore has worked many jobs and started a few of his own businesses. He is trusted in his community as an iPhone fixer.
He repairs phones every week, and is starting to have success with a security business he founded two years ago, installing security systems for businesses and homes.
Weaving through the streets of Joburg, Lovemore can point out all the street corners and nooks under bridges where he has lived. He looks back on that time as a way to remind himself how far he has come.
Today, he said his biggest challenge was getting South African documents, so that he can move forward and stop operating like a “ghost”, because getting clients can be challenging when he can’t register his company or apply for any sort of funding.
“Everything is falling into place even though sometimes it’s hard,” Lovemore said.
“I know what I want in my life, so I won’t let those difficult moments cloud my vision. I need to remain positive.”