Smuggled from Nairobi to Joburg

An undercover reporter accompanies four Kenyans as they’re smuggled from Nairobi to Johannesburg in search of better opportunities.
Every year, many Kenyans travel thousands of kilometres seeking a brighter future in South Africa.

They pay smugglers to coordinate their travel and endure great difficulties along the route.

Many manage to reach South Africa safely, but others suffer the consequences of clandestine migration and fall victim to violent robbery, extortion and sexual abuse.

There are no precise figures for irregular Kenyan migrants to South Africa available because of its underground nature, but the smuggling business is clearly thriving.

One agent, for example, has been in the business for the past 10 years. This is after the South African government imposed stringent visa rules for Kenyans.

There are at least three agents operating on the Nairobi-Johannesburg route, and every week at least 10 people leave Kenya for South Africa – without visas.

This flow is mainly fuelled by rising aspirations for a better life, lack of employment opportunities at home and the attraction of real or imaginary opportunities for high earnings in South Africa.

The most salient thing about human smuggling is that it flourishes because of the endemic corruption across the region.

On the roads, the smugglers seemed known by most police officers in transit countries and after parting with some money, they were allowed to continue with their journey.

At the Beitbridge Border Post between Zimbabwe and South Africa, the smugglers, through their local agents, give police hefty bribes to allow the migrants to enter the country through the normal entry point without asking any questions.

Potential migrants get to know the smugglers through their social networks and recommendations by successful migrants in South Africa. Others are lured by sub-agents who operate on the outskirts of Nairobi and bring them into contact with the main agents.

The fees range between Sh40,000 and Sh100,000 for adults. Children pay half price. Kenyans of Somali descent pay the highest fees “because they are easily detectable as foreigners”, according to one agent.

They also charge Sh1,500 for instant fake yellow fever vaccination certificates.

Tunduma town in southern Tanzania, near the border with Zambia.
Tunduma town in southern Tanzania, near the border with Zambia.

The agents adopt various methods to facilitate this irregular migration, and the mode of travel varies, depending on the number of migrants in a given week.

These include hopscotching in public buses from Nairobi through Arusha, Dodoma, Mbeya, Tunduma, Lusaka and Harare to Johannesburg. Sometimes they use personal vehicles, but most usually they use minibuses.

The smugglers carry out their businesses freely in Kenya because they operate secretly.

It is also easy for them because Kenyans can travel visa-free to Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe before entering South Africa clandestinely.

It is impossible for Kenyan immigration officials to stop suspected illegal migrants at the border posts. This is because according to the Constitution, every Kenyan has a right to leave the country at any time, for any reason.

“Even if you know that they are being smuggled or trafficked, you can only advise them and leave everything else to them,” Mr Josef Mwikya, the head of consular services at the Kenyan High Commission in South Africa said of bona fide Kenyan migrants.

He previously worked as principal immigration officer at the Namanga border post.

The smugglers are well organised through a highly efficient regional network with links in Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

At border points, including Tunduma (Tanzania-Zambia), Kariba (Zambia-Zimbabwe) and Beitbridge (Zimbabwe-South Africa) the smugglers use local agents to bribe police and immigration officers.

In most cases, the migrants, with the guidance of Zimbabwean smugglers, walk for five to 10 kilometres in a forest under the cover of darkness before crossing the crocodile-infested Limpopo River into South Africa undetected.

There is usually a vehicle waiting for them on the other side to take them to Johannesburg, a six hour-drive from the border.


In 2007, Kimani (who gave only one name to conceal his identity), migrated to South Africa from Ndenderu in Kiambu with high hopes. He had plans to make more money, build a house and take care of his siblings’ education.

But many years later, his dream is far from realised. Broke and mentally broken, Kimani takes each day as it comes.

“I survive by doing menial jobs,” he says.

He lives in a tiny cubicle with only a bed. It has been many months since he last paid rent. He has a pending case in court with his landlord over rent arrears. By law the landlord cannot evict him or ask for rent until the case is decided.

Kimani, 39, spends most of his days in his room. When his neighbours or Kenyan friends need a hand for a task, such as washing their cars, they call him.

He is is one of an untold number of Kenyans living from hand to mouth, thousands of kilometres away from home. Without documents showing that he is in South Africa legally, it is hard to mak ends meet, he says.

“I can’t look for a job because I don’t have any papers. My Kenyan ID and passport got lost and I have never replaced them,” he says.

To avoid arrest and deportation, he normally reports to the police that his passport is lost. With an official police abstract, he cannot be arrested for three months after it is issued. He has been using the abstract for the last two years.

Tall, dark and slender, Kimani has had three jobs since arriving in South Africa. He first sold curios in Johannesburg, but the returns were not high. He then moved to Cape Town, where he worked as a waiter.

“I have to go home before this year ends. I miss my family very much”
As a waiter at the coastal city, he made about 3,000 rands (Sh21,000) every weekend. But the job was very tiring and he hardly had time to rest, he says. He quit and moved with his family to Parys, Free State, where he worked as an insurance agent.

Things were going well, or so he thought. Then, one day in 2016, his vehicle was written off after a road crash. This made it impossible for him to continue with his job as it required a lot of travelling. Things quickly spiralled out of hand, and he couldn’t make ends meet.

“My wife returned home with our daughter because life became too hard here,” he says.

Kimani’s story of disillusionment is a common one among Kenyans who have sneaked into South Africa.

At the turn of the millennium, South Africa grew increasingly alluring for Kenyans seeking better lives and opportunities.

But in the recent past, the South African economy has had its own problems. In the first quarter of 2019, the country’s gross domestic product fell by 3.2 per cent.

The country’s unemployment rate stood at 27.6 per cent in March 2019, up from 21.5 per cent in December 2008, according to data reported by Statistics South Africa. The report says the burden of unemployment is concentrated among the youth (15 to 34 years), who account for 63.4 per cent of the jobless.

Thanks to a poorly performing economy, among other reasons, some Kenyan migrants living in South Africa illegally face a devastating choice: Continue struggling far from home, or return to Kenya, empty-handed and embarrassed for having failed abroad.

It’s been 12 years since Kimani was last home. “I have to go home before this year ends. I miss my family very much,” Kimani says.

But he can’t come back with nothing. He fears he will be the butt of jokes in his village.

Our reporter was arrested at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg over an immigration offence that she committed in the course of her reporting. She was put in a police cell for five nights.

When I made plans to report on clandestine migration of Kenyans seeking better economic opportunities in South Africa, the arrangement with my editors was that I would not do anything illegal. Not getting my passport stamped when entering South Africa was never part of the script. But as I was following the story, I was confronted with unforeseen events that put my fate in the hands of the smugglers.

Although I had a valid visa, I ended up entering South Africa undercover, alongside the other Kenyans. As I was leaving the country, I was arrested at the airport for failing to report to an immigration officer on entry six days earlier. Unscripted, I became a defendant and entered the South African justice system. In detention, an aspect of South Africa that I had not experienced was opened to me, leaving a lasting impression.

Nelson Mandela once said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its citizens, but its lowest ones.”

After my arrest, I was taken to a holding cell as the immigration officers processed my charges before handing me over to the police. My fingerprints were taken, though not my mugshot.

During this time, I was made aware of my rights as a detainee in a language that I understand, including the right to be detained under conditions consonant with human dignity, adequate accommodation, nutrition, reading material and medical treatment at State expense.

The privileges also included an opportunity to communicate with, and be visited by a partner, next of kin, a religious counsellor and a medical practitioner of my choice. The rights were outlined on a slip of paper that all detainees are given immediately after arrest.

The notice also indicated the reason for being detained.

At the airport, the cells were tiny and only two people (of the same gender) shared a cell. I was made to wait for eight hours alongside a Cameroonian woman, who was arrested for possessing a forged South African asylum document, as police processed our charges. We were later transferred to a police cell about five kilometres away from the airport.

South African police vehicles.
South African police vehicles.

I was never handcuffed at any point, but as we were being transported to Kempton Park Police Station, the siren of the police truck was on. At this point, I got my first taste of what it is like to be in police custody and the harsh truths on what follows after you commit an offence started dawning on me.

At Kempton Park, the police took our luggage, shoelaces and belts and emptied our pockets. We were not allowed to take any property, including money and mobile phones, into the cell. The police wrote down everything they took from us in an official book that we signed, and we kept a copy of the record. This was to ensure that we got back everything the had taken from us when we were released.

We were ushered into the basic room where we would be staying for the weekend and found three other women there.

Throughout my time in custody, I was accorded humane treatment. I did not at any point feel harassed or mishandled.

Our cell was constantly lit, had blankets and several paddings on the concrete floor to sleep on, a toilet in the corner and another outside that had a sink and soap. The toilet looked like those on aeroplanes, made of stainless steel with no lid. Cleaners disinfected the toilets every day. They also cleaned the cell once when I was there.

The police officers came to our cell about four times every night to check whether we were all right. Well, not really all right, but alive.

We were given food three times every day. Breakfast consisted of bread and tea, lunch was sandwiches and juice in disposable cups, and for supper we had different foods on different days, including pap (South Africa’s version of ugali) with beef, rice with chicken or ground meat, boerewors (South African sausage made of ground meat).

I came to learn later that Sa’s custodial system is governed under the Nelson Mandela Rules for the treatment of prisoners. The rules are a revision of the 1955 United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and were named so in 2015 to honour the leader, who spent 27 years in prison in the course of his struggle.


Photos: Beatrice Kangai, Sila Kiplagat and AFP

Video: Leonard Ligai

Scrolling map: Joseph Ngari