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Crossing crocodile-infested Limpopo for survival

by Staff reporter
12 Jul 2020 at 10:45hrs | Views
It's a struggle: Women sit precariously at the back of a bakkie packed with food in Musina, South Africa. Pictures: Leon Sadiki/City Press
A bakkie waits on the Zimbabwean side of the Limpopo River.

A number of people sit waiting for their relatives to return from shopping forays into South Africa, especially in the border town of Musina, about 100km west of this spot, along the river that marks the international boundary between the two countries.

A Zimbabwean man is washing his clothes in the river while waiting. He reveals to the City Press team that they start the journey in the early mornings in order to
get to the shops first.

And then a car would be organised to pick up the food from the riverbank, and it is then taken to the villages and shops in Zimbabwe to be sold or consumed.

The average price for a bakkie to transport the food from the shopping centre in Musina to the Limpopo River is a few thousand rands for a distance of between 50km and 100km.

On a good day, the bakkie owners can make as much as R5 500.

The closure of South Africa's borders with our neighbouring countries has created a huge demand for food in Zimbabwe, and forced some shop owners and villagers to become food smugglers.

They risk their lives while crossing the crocodile-infested waters of the Limpopo River and being charged at by roaming wild elephants, just to put food on the table.

Since the start of the lockdown, Zimbabweans who live close to the Beitbridge border gate have not been able to buy groceries in the nearby town of Musina in Limpopo because of the travel ban, therefore they resort to extreme measures to buy food in South Africa in order to provide for their families.

With the help of locals, they manage to evade soldiers from the South Africa National Defence Force who are patrolling the border fence on either side of the Beitbridge border gate.

Some use donkey carts to cross the Limpopo River into Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean smugglers previously cut holes in the newly repaired 40km long border fence which was reportedly built at the hair-raising cost of R37 million.

The project is the subject of an investigation by the Auditor-General.

However, due to the high visibility of the soldiers, some smugglers have opted to now use more distant routes about 100km east of Musina where there is no border fence or patrolling soldiers.

From Gumbu village, there are a number of smuggling routes used to transport food out of the country.

"This is what we see on a daily basis. Our brothers and sisters from Zimbabwe have no food because of the coronavirus so they have to smuggle the food across the river in order to eat," says village elder Mahwasane Mudzweda.

He is the chairperson of the Vhembe Communal Property Association.

He said the local villagers sympathised with the Zimbabweans during this time of the pandemic that has wreaked havoc in many countries and economies around the world.

"We don't have a problem with them, they are people just like us. We just ignore them because they are not harming us in any way.

"They come here with their own money and buy food just like we do," said Mudzweda, who does not live far from the river.

Gumbu is a small agricultural village in the Vhembe district where residents largely rely on subsistence farming to make a living.

Mudzweda says that the reason smugglers prefer using the river as a route is that there is no fence or patrolling soldiers, unlike at the border gate where there is a high visibility of armed security forces.

"You must always be prepared to face danger because here by the river is no-man's-land; anything can happen.

"You can be attacked by the gangs or you could be charged at by an elephant," he says.

According to farmer Hermanus Schoeman, who operates on the South African side along the border, and employs over 200 workers, including Zimbabweans, the smuggling of food across the border has become a common occurrence since the start of the pandemic, because the selling economy of Musina and other surrounding towns largely relies on Zimbabweans.

"I have a lot of Zimbabwean people working for me, who have families in Zimbabwe, so we compared the prices of food and we found that the prices for, let's say maize meal, cooking oil and sugar, is three times more expensive in Zimbabwe," he said.

"So, if you earned only enough money just to survive, now you can't survive anymore, so that is why people buy food here and smuggle it over the border into Zimbabwe," explained Schoeman.

He says that one of the most common methods used to smuggle the food is to jump over the fence or cut holes in it in order to get into South Africa on foot and then hire local bakkie owners to transport the food close to the border fence where it would then be picked up by people on the Zimbabwean side.

"I have seen with some of my workers: their relatives who come through the river to pick up goods and walk back," he explains.

Schoeman says food is not the only commodity being smuggled across the border.

A day earlier there had been a shoot-out on his farm between cigarette smugglers from Zimbabwe and the South African police.

This was after the smugglers were caught transporting illegal cigarettes into South Africa.

He said that this was not the only incident to happen, but a number of cigarettes smugglers had been caught in the area since the start of the ban on the sale of cigarettes, which has fuelled an illicit tobacco trade that is now worth millions of rands.

Source - City Press