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Stubborn smugglers dice with death on treacherous Limpopo

by Staff reporter
25 Mar 2022 at 06:02hrs | Views
DECENT Mbedzi (42) sits uncomfortably as he frantically nails together some wooden boards to make a wooden raft, just metres away from Dulibadzimu Gorge, about five kilometres south of Beitbridge border.

It is 2pm on a blazing Tuesday and Mbedzi is racing against time, rushing to finish crafting the makeshift raft before sunset, which is peak time for the illegal business of ferrying people and goods across the flooded Limpopo River river.

"I am trying to make another raft because the one I had was destroyed when we were raided a few days ago. It won't take me long before it is done and business continues," Mbedzi said, showing off his wooden raft now big enough to carry goods and people across the crocodile-infested river.

"I was lucky that they left my rope. It is expensive and I do not know how I was going to continue with work if they had taken it," he said as he explained the raid by the police and the military.

Mbedzi says although he can bribe some security officials manning the gorge, there have been constant changes to the crack team, making it difficult for him.

"We have some of the security guys who know how to work with us, but some just won't have it. Sometimes bribes won't work. You will just have to work in the wee hours of the morning. Our spot is now well known so you have to be discreet and smart in this game," Mbedzi said.

A rope on each side helps keep the raft from being swept away by heavy torrents.

Smuggling is rife at this crossing point, with smugglers paying large sums to move contraband across the river into Zimbabwe in the dead of night. This breach of security is a huge headache for the Zimbabwean authorities.

The crossing point near Dulibadzimu Gorge is also popular with undocumented immigrants who risk their lives to enter South Africa.

Thousands use the illegal points to travel to South Africa where many are economic refugees fleeing from Zimbabwe's perennially troubled economy.

Mbedzi's raft is brazenly used by smugglers to transport contraband from South Africa for sale across the border.

The gorge, located near a ZimParks compound, is a hive of activity in the wee hours of the morning.

There are flickering torches and hushed conversations as the smugglers try their best to avoid detection by security officers manning illegal crossing points along the border.

Despite the increased surveillance, Mbedzi and his friends, infamously known as "Magumaguma", have continued moving smuggled goods across the border. The contraband includes washing powder, cooking oil, beer, alcoholic spirits, toiletries, and other home goods.

Home applieances like refrigerators, stoves, microwaves and even beds can be moved across the border using the wooden raft.

The authorities have recorded an increase in the smuggling of beers and spirits, which enjoy a lucrative market in Zimbabwe.

Ciders and premium lagers have found their way into the Zimbabwean market without paying import duty.

In Beitbridge, imbibers admit that smuggled beer is cheaper than local Zimbabwean-brewed brands.

"Most of the beer sold here is smuggled into the country through irregular means. It is cheaper to buy foreign beer than local lagers. This has given incentive for smugglers to continue their trade," a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said.

"There has been an increase in the number of checkpoints along the river, but the trade continues. Sometimes you intercept kombis laden with washing powder, while some carry spirits only. No matter how many times you intercept and impound goods, those involved will find a way," the policeman said.

The border line between Zimbabwe and South Africa comprises 260 kilometres of the Limpopo River. Police have only eight bases, 20 miles apart, making it difficult to control the entire stretch.

There are also over 200 illegal crossing points along the Limpopo River, making it nearly impossible for tohe authorities to stem smuggling. Dubadzimu Gorge is one of 200 illegal crossing points used by smugglers.

Sweat drips down the face of Carlos Mpande (40) as he tries to salvage a broken boat after a police raid.

His boat was shattered into pieces by soldiers following the raid near Dulibadzimu Gorge. Mpande needs a miracle to get back into business.

Before the security officers manning the river destroyed his boat, he had lost three other makeshift canoes.

"My children depend on this boat; I have to make it work. Business is growing and my only means of making money has been destroyed," Mpande said as he gazes forlornly into the sky as if to summon divine strength.

"It will take me two days to get this boat working again, which means I would have missed two days of work. But it must work," Mpande said.

While some choose to ferry contraband in the dead of night, others are daring enough to push their hustle during the day.

The thick bushes that lead to the Limpopo River have become a channel of smuggling goods into the country.

Taxi drivers have also become a conduit for smuggling as they move contraband.

"I charge 100 rand per customer. This is to cater for any eventualities along the way, as you know there are soldiers everywhere," a taxi driver said.

"You can be unlucky sometimes when you meet an unfamiliar security official. They may impound the vehicle or arrest you. It is a dicey game, but that is the only way we survive."

Zimbabwean authorities have been in sixes and sevens as smuggling worsens.

Zimbabwe Republic Police spokesperson Paul Nyathi said the authorities are conducting weekly arrests.

"We have been arresting smugglers every week. We urge the public to declare their goods at the border and pay their excise duty. They risk being arrested if they use other means," Nyathi said.

The Covid-19 pandemic worsened smuggling in the country as land borders remained closed to ordinary travellers.

Cross-border traders who survive on buying and selling goods from South Africa found themselves with no income, hence smuggling became the only source of livelihood.

The smuggling of tobacco also rose during the pandemic.

This triggered South Africa and Zimbabwe to step up border patrols in a bid to particularly stop cigarette smuggling. Authorities from the two countries, recovered millions worth of cigarettes as smugglers looked poised to rake in huge profits from contraband.

By February this year, South African police had recovered R670 000 worth of cigarettes.

It is estimated that over 40% of cigarette brands sold in South Africa are from Zimbabwe.

Until the stubborn smugglers find other ways to eke out a living, they will continue risking their lives along the treacherous crocodile-infested Limpopo River.

Source - NewsHawks