JOHANNESBURG - Hungry Zimbabwean children are deserting school in greater numbers and flocking to South Africa in search of food and employment, a church bishop told ZimOnline.
Bishop Veryn - whose Central Methodist church in Johannesburg provides shelter and food to homeless immigrants - said the church had seen an increase in the number of children of school going age from Zimbabwe arriving to seek shelter after trekking into South Africa on their own.
"Presently, my church is taking care of 150 children from Zimbabwe, who came to Johannesburg on their own," the Bishop said.
Adult male Zimbabweans have over the years often trekked to South Africa in search of employment on the country's sprawling farms, mines and factories but an unprecedented economic crisis and political violence have over the past decade seen nearly every other able bodied adult joining the trek down south to look for better paying jobs.
Veryn said it appeared the trend was changing with schoolchildren also joining the trek to South Africa despite new hopes for change in Zimbabwe after the signing of a power-sharing agreement between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leaders four weeks ago.
"This week alone, my church received 30 children escaping from abject poverty in Zimbabwe," said Veryn, adding: "Despite the on-going power-sharing talks, we still receive hundreds of Zimbabwe asylum seekers at the church."
Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party, the Morgan Tsvangirai-led main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party and its rebel faction led by Arthur Mutambara agreed to form a unity government under a power-sharing agreement brokered by former South African President Thabo Mbeki on September 15.
The agreement, which retains Mugabe as president while Tsvangirai becomes prime minister and Mutambara deputy prime minister, allots 15 Cabinet posts to ZANU PF, 13 to the Tsvangirai-led MDC and three to Mutambara's faction.
Crisis-weary Zimbabweans had hoped a power-sharing government would immediately begin work to reverse an economic crisis that plumbed new lows last week when the government Central Statistical Office released fresh figures showing annual inflation at 231 million percent, the highest such rate in the world.
But the deal has stalled over the allocation of key Cabinet ministries of home affairs, finance, local government, foreign affairs between the three parties prompting Mbeki to travel to Harare to try to salvage the pact.
The Johannesburg Central Methodist church accommodates 3 500 refugees and asylum seekers mostly from Zimbabwe with an estimated average of 100 to 200 new arrivals per week.
"Some, who would have stayed here for long are released to go elsewhere in search of employment opportunities upon acquiring asylum permit papers whilst creating space for the new arrivals," Veryn said.
Madodana Nyathi, a 16-year-old boy from Zimbabwe's second biggest city Bulawayo said he left home because he had stopped going to school as he could no longer afford school fees, adding that he had entered South Africa illegally and was struggling to cope in Johannesburg where he was not working.
"I had no option but to quit school. The fees were unaffordable. In addition, going to school has become worthless as jobs are scarce. However, I have hopes of going back to school one day, hopefully in South Africa if I get the money," said Nyathi.
However, some youths are brought to South Africa by their parents - some of who were displaced during the violence that preceded the widely condemned June 27 elections - who fear for the welfare of their children in Zimbabwe where the economic situation continues to deteriorate by the day.
"I am seeking asylum together with my children. It is better that I suffer with them here than for them to experience hardships in Zimbabwe," said a single mother of two, Judy Marava.
Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF) executive director Gabriel Shumba said the power-sharing deal offered Zimbabwe a new platform to begin work to end an economic and humanitarian crisis that had forced millions of citizens to flee abroad.
"The situation in Zimbabwe is untenable. It should not be left to Thabo Mbeki alone to try to remedy the impasse. Justice for crimes against humanity is also needed for lasting peace," said Shumba.
"The way forward for Zimbabwe is, of course, to make the deal work in a substantive way and that is to clear all hurdles as well as to agree on how, what appears to be two centres of power will operate. There will be no second chance after this in my opinion, and only disaster and catastrophe loom if this fails."
In addition to hyperinflation, Zimbabweans also have to grapple with acute shortages of every basic survival commodity and eight in 10 people are out of employment. Shortages of water and electricity are common, burst sewers flow unchecked while roads are littered with potholes.
Critics blame Mugabe for inheriting a jewel economy at independence from Britain in 1980 and running it down through controversial policies such as an often-violent seizure of commercial farms from whites that has plunged commercial agriculture and lately the threat to seize foreign-owned companies, including mines.
Mugabe denies ruining the economy and instead blames sanctions imposed by Western countries on his government.