By Thandiwe Garusa
MORE than a year since the Zimbabwean government shuttered all border posts owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, traffic between South Africa and Zimbabwe continues to thrive, with immigration officers, bus drivers and security agents from both countries openly conniving to allow for the smuggling of people, an investigation by NewZimbabwe.com has revealed.
At the beginning of 2020, the government promulgated Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020, ordering the shutting down of all borders to curb the spread of Covid-19, allowing only those with valid work permits, truck drivers and buses carrying essential goods and returnees to operate.
However, despite these regulations, thousands of people looking for greener pastures continue to travel between the two countries through the Beitbridge Border Post, with immigration officers and security agents allegedly working with transporters to allow traffic between the two countries.
The investigation, conducted in partnership with the Information Development Trust (IDT), revealed that local buses, particularly those that pick-up passengers from High Glen and Mbudzi charge at least R2 500 or US$170 per trip, although the fare is subject to negotiations.
With borders legally closed, all people intending to travel between Zimbabwe and South Africa without permits are considered border jumpers. This is regardless of whether they may have valid passports.
The fare is inclusive of a Covid-19 certificate indicating that the traveller does not have the virus that has killed more than 5 000 people in Zimbabwe as of January 5, 2022.
“We charge R2 500 which covers everything that is required. All you must do is sit in the bus until you reach your destination. We do everything for you,” a bus conductor operating at High Glen said, unaware that he was speaking to an investigative journalist.
The conductor revealed that some passengers would come with as little as R1 500. Such passengers were dropped off in Beitbridge, where other cross border transporters take them through illegal crossing points.
Crossing through the Limpopo River is a scary prospect for many, and they usually resort to paying the more exorbitant fees charged by bus operators.
“Anything can happen to you, you can get raped along the way or even get killed by crocodiles, not forgetting thugs that side, I once got robbed and my phone was stolen, luckily I did not get harmed,” a passenger who identified herself as Lorreta Chuma, who was on the coach to Johannesburg, said.
The unwitting conductor further revealed that most buses have a carrying capacity of at least 72 passengers per trip, with 75% of the passengers being women who are into buying and selling of basic goods and some who work in South Africa.
To understand how the ring worked, this reporter boarded a South Africa-bound coach. As the conductor had advised earlier, when the bus got to the border, all passengers were ordered to stay put, with only the driver alighting to go and negotiate with immigration officers.
The driver, identified as Gonde, told the passengers that the border post was teeming with security agents and passengers alighting from the bus would only serve to draw unnecessary attention.
The clearance process took a while due to tightened security, with bribes being paid along the way.
For those without the required R2 500 or are not going as far as Johannesburg and Pretoria, the picture is entirely different. They must rely on people smugglers known as omagumaguma.
These local smugglers make a living from illegally taking undocumented citizens to and from Musina daily.
Some smugglers and their clients use the official border post, and they leave very early because the 17km distance from Beitbridge border post to Musina town can take close to two hours due to delays by security agents.
They use kombis and lorries, which are favourable for carrying goods like groceries and household equipment.
On that day, there were at least eight checkpoints, which were manned by police officers, military, traffic police, immigration officers and other security agents, all demanding varying amounts of payments from the smugglers.
The process is the same when returning from South Africa. In some cases, some security officials asked for water or a “cold drink”, usually code words for bribes.
In one case, a policewoman blatantly asked to be bribed, saying she wanted money to spoil her kids during the Christmas holidays.
Her openness in demanding a bribe betrayed a familiarness between herself and the crew.
Besides the official border post, there are up to 200 other illegal entry and exit points that are used to cross to South Africa.
The trip to South Africa also involves using small footpaths, which pass through the forest leading to a pedestrians’ footbridge.
There are security agents who are supposed to be monitoring and blocking border jumpers, but instead they assist them.
The security agents often demand between R50 and R100 as bribes from each traveller.
It was observed that even minors also use this route and mostly women engaged in petty trade.
Others choose to cross through the fully flooded and crocodile infested Limpopo River.
Another entry point is the Dulibadzimu gorge, about 15 minutes’ drive from Beitbridge town.
This route is said to be preferred by young men who walk until they cross to South Africa where they bribe soldiers in that country. This is the cheapest route into the neighbouring country.
Near the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority residential buildings, about two to three kilometres west of the official border, there is also another illegal entry point.
The people smugglers use a makeshift wooden boat tied to a rope which is pulled from both ends to control its movement as it crosses the flooded river.
There is a crew which facilitates the crossing, with one group on the Zimbabwean side of the river and another on the South African side.
The smugglers demand R100 per person and the money is kept by a person on the South African side of the river.
This is because the police and military usually raid the Zimbabwean side and take all the money.
The makeshift boat has a capacity of 20 passengers, and it takes less than 10 minutes to cross over from Zimbabwe to South Africa.
As if to illustrate that the business of smuggling people is brisk, on the Zimbabwean side of the riverbank there are a few ladies who sell water and drinks at R15, three times the normal price.
They do not entertain strangers. Anyone who is not crossing is not welcome at that place.
“They are taking pictures, go take their phones they will post us on social media,” the boat crew shouted when they realised this reporter was filming them.
Some of the crew, who were on sentry duties to alert others in case soldiers or a police patrol arrived, immediately surrounded this reporter.
“Police came here in the morning and took all our money, so we do not want these things to end up on social media platforms. Just leave, some guys may throw your phones into the river, or they will just throw the owner of the phone,” one of them shouted angrily.
Recently, South Africa’s Home Affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi inferred that thousands of people crossing into that country from Zimbabwe were assisted by corrupt police officers and soldiers from north of the Limpopo.
Motsoaledi said Zimbabwe was not doing enough to curb corruption or the surge of undocumented immigrants into South Africa.
Home Affairs Minister Kazembe Kazembe declined to comment on the issue fearing that he would be misquoted.
“I do not talk to journalists on the phone, send your questions in writing and I will respond, I have always been misquoted so I will not answer you on the phone, send your questions to the Ministry of Home Affairs,” he said, but did not respond to written questions either.
Chief Immigration Director Respect Gono said she was not aware that people are being smuggled by buses to South Africa.
“We do not clear buses, we clear people. So, if a bus driver comes with a valid passport, we serve that particular bus driver, we only serve people with valid passports and South African permits, we are not aware of people who are crossing illegally using buses because if those people are not presented before immigration, it will be difficult for us to say here are the people, we have not seen those people,” she said.
“That is news to me, I really must investigate that, a full bus is passing by the bridge. We know that foreigners are being repatriated and are passing through Beitbridge, Zimbabweans who are coming back home go to the port health where they get screened and everything, we then check their passports later after they have been cleared by the port health. They do go through the embassy under a government process where they are given travelling documents to come back home but going to South Africa that is news to me,” she said.
An estimated three million Zimbabweans are said to be living and working in South Africa and only 250 000 were granted four year working visas in 2009, which have been extended over the years.
Recently, the South African government announced that it will not renew the visas which expired in December 2021.
A Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs, Defence and Security Services report of March 2021 presented by Chiredzi South Zanu PF legislator Callisto Gwanetsa revealed that state security agents operating at the border post are corruptly facilitating illegal entry of locals and foreigners.
“The country’s borders were very porous as evidenced by the proliferation of illegal exit and entry points,” the report says.
“The rise in illegal border crossing cases impacted negatively on the reputation of the Immigration Department inasmuch as it affected the entire nation in terms of security and loss of revenue.”