"This was South Africa – the land of possibility," said Langton, shaking his head as he recalled his naivety. "I believed that within a month of my arrival, I’d be at college. That’s the impression we have when we leave Zimbabwe for South Africa," he added.
Langton’s view was misguided and misinformed and he suffered for his innocence. But, unlike most others who head to South Africa to escape poverty or persecution, his luck turned and he eventually landed a plum hotel job in Cape Town with the help of one of UNHCR’s implementing partners.
The young man had never wanted to leave Zimbabwe, where he worked as a personal assistant at an events management company. The devout Christian tried to focus on his work and steer clear of politics, but suffered harassment when he refused to join meetings and campaigns of the youth wing of the ruling party.
To escape the pressure on himself and ease life for his family, Langton decided to take the well-worn path to neighbouring South Africa, arriving at the northern border town of Musina in January 2008. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans lodge applications for asylum at Musina each year; they are then free to work or study while their applications are processed.
But Langton made straight for Cape Town, more than 1,500 miles to the south, with high hopes of success. He turned up at the Cape Town Refugee Reception Office to apply for asylum, only to receive a rude awakening.
"I never realized that being an asylum-seeker could be so difficult and that overnight I’d be reduced to becoming a hobo," said Langton, who was shocked by the lack of courtesy people showed each other and the trouble it took to try and get the documents necessary to legalize his status. "My faith was badly shaken and it became a very difficult time for me."
The ordeal of applying for asylum was bad enough, but he also had a hard time finding shelter. "I had no choice but to sleep under a bridge with some 50 homeless asylum-seekers," he confided. Langton endured days and nights of hunger, drenched by the Cape’s seasonal rains, and rooting for food in garbage cans.
He returned to the refugee reception office day-after-day to pursue his case for asylum, hoping that one day he would get to the top of the queue. "I could not let circumstances weigh me down. I had come to South Africa with a goal and, despite my situation at the time, I was going to achieve it."
Then he had a piece of luck. While out scavenging for food, Langton spotted a crumpled flyer for the Job Start College, which held training courses for the hospitality industry. He went to see them the next day with two friends he had made while living under the bridge.
The three were put in touch with the Cape Town Refugee Centre (CTRC), a partner of the UN refugee agency in the Western Cape Province. "These young men were the perfect candidates for our self-reliance programme," recalled CTRC’s Phaladi Kotsie. "They were focused, determined and eager. I could see no reason not to help fund their short course at the [Job Start] college."
The CTRC, using funds from UNHCR, also provided accommodation for the trio while they underwent a nine-week food and beverages programme. They all passed with flying colours. A month ago, Langton started his new job as a waiter at the four-star Fountains Hotel in central Cape Town.
The Zimbabwean is happy with how his life has turned out so far. He earns enough to keep himself warm, sheltered and well fed, with a little left over to send home to his mother and sister.
With many establishments reluctant to employ foreigners holding an asylum-seeker permit, Langton believes that his faith has stood him in good stead. His ultimate goal is to complete a diploma in hospitality management.
"I could never have imagined that I would be working with visitors from all over the world today," the young man said, casting an eye towards the nearby bridge where he spent many a sleepless night.
By Pumla Rulashe in Cape Town, South Africa