Elizabeth Sintim was drawn by the freedoms of South Africa, especially by the heroic icon Nelson Mandela. She saw a place of equal opportunity, a place where she could make a good living, a country whose stock exchange is ranked 18th largest in the world.
Because her own Ghana offered little, Sintim, 28, left her 1-year-old daughter Roseline in November 2009 to move to South Africa, the biggest economy on the African continent.
Sintim is considered an “economic migrant” here. Her path to permanent relocation is by seeking asylum or a work permit. It is easier to obtain a work permit after winning asylum, but that is quite difficult itself. And to apply directly for a work permit is problematic: It’s granted when a person has a skill that is rare in South Africa, or when employers can show local people aren’t qualified or available, according to the South African government.
The United Nations says a person can qualify to become a refugee if “persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
But that’s not Sintim, who left Ghana because there were no jobs and she had no means to raise her daughter, now 2.
Sintim has been granted an asylum-seeking permit that allows her to temporarily stay in the country. But according to the Department of Home Affairs website, these “Section 22 permits” are valid for just one to three months at a time, meaning Sintim has to return to the Refugee Reception Center in Port Elizabeth — a 90-minute drive — to make regular renewals. Every time, there’s the chance her application could be rejected. Every time, she has her thumbprints taken and is interviewed by a Refugee Reception officer.
If she’s ever rejected, her case would be referred to the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs, leaving her 14 days to make a case. If unsuccessful, she would be sent home to Ghana.
“When I was young, I heard of Mandela. So I was eager to come and see Mandela,” Sintim said. “You can do anything (here), but not above the law. You can do anything, feel everything. We are common to each other. We don’t know this is a rich man, this is a poor man. Everything is common.”
Sintim had been a secretary in Ghana, and also went to school for three years to obtain a license to open a hair salon. When no employer wanted to hire her here, a friend helped her open Ladies’ Choice Salon in downtown Grahamstown.
Because of her status, Sintim can’t get money home for Roseline, who lives with Sintim’s unemployed mother. (South Africa’s exchange controls make it difficult to wire money or send cash out of the country, and it’s difficult for asylum-seekers to even open a bank account without government papers.)
Sintim is also not allowed to travel out of South Africa, so she hasn’t seen her daughter since she left Ghana. Sintim’s mother sends her photographs of Roseline, and Sintim is watching her grow up through them. “She needs money for school and food, but who is to send her money?” Sintim asked. She hopes Roseline can join her in South Africa soon.
There are many others like Sintim in South Africa, including a notable group of Zimbabweans who left their country because of the economic collapse under President Robert Mugabe’s rule.
Business is not going well for Ladies’ Choice Salon. Sintim says she barely earns enough money to cover the wages for her employees, the store rent and also the rent for her downtown apartment that she shares with her sister Cecelia, who works in the salon. The rent for the store is 6,300 rand per month, which is around 915 U.S. dollars. The rent for her apartment is around 1,300 rand per month, which is around 189 U.S. dollars.
Sintim is grateful that her apartment was already furnished, so she did not have that expense, too.
She perseveres, but is weary.
“It is too much, too much,” Sintim said.